I have been struck recently with how bad I can be at listening. So often I am catching people at church, while needing to speak to countless others, so I can have half an ear on what they are saying, my eyes wandering around to catch the next person on my list – and of course a necessary eye on what my children are doing too. But God has been teaching me how bad a model that is.
Listening is a skill that needs to be learnt well. As the old saying goes, "You have two ears and one mouth, so listen twice as much as you speak."
Who is it that you would say listens to you best? The person who grabs you quickly while on the way elsewhere, asks how you are and nods and smiles before zooming off? The one that takes more time, stands and listens but then begins to interrupt with their own story or advice on what you should do? Or the person who makes a particular arrangement to meet you, sits down, gives you their full attention by looking in your eyes and then simply sits quietly, taking it all in?
Being listened to is one of the main ways we can feel cared for. It gives us a sense of validation because another is interested in hearing about how we truly are. Here are some of the reminders I have been given recently about how to listen well:
• Listen carefully, rather than having half your thoughts focused on what you are going to say in response. It isn't about you – it's about the one you are listening to. If you find this difficult, try putting yourself in their position and think, "How would I feel if it were me speaking to them about a similar thing?" Proverbs 18:2 says: "Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions." There's a time and a place to share opinions, such as when a person specifically asks for them. But it's not the right thing to do when you are supposed to be listening and understanding where the other person is coming from.
• Make eye contact. Of course, we don't want to overdo this and make the person uncomfortable, but eye contact is an important way of making people aware that we are truly listening. A little nod of the head occasionally too shows them you haven't switched off.
• Be aware of your own body language. Are your arms folded or do you have a hand on your hip? Does your posture show the other person that you are impatient for them to finish or are you sitting in a relaxed manner, showing that you are happy to stay there and hear what they have to say?
• Be attentive. While you don't want to be constantly interrupting, it is good to reflect back what you are hearing so that the person talking knows you are taking it in. You can ask open-ended questions too, that open up the conversation even more deeply.
• Listen for what is not being said, and for the emotion behind the words that are being used. So often when people are hurting they keep a veil over the real issues. Our job as listeners is to be attentive to what is going on (as well as the Holy Spirit's promptings) in order to make them feel comfortable enough to open up more.
• Show compassion rather than trying to solve all their problems. Often it is about being heard rather than being told what to do that is most important.
• Don't be afraid of silence. If someone is really hurting, they may not want to unpick everything they've shared with you at that moment, but may just need you to sit there with them, showing that you've heard and understood the gravity of what they've said.
• Don't try to hurry the conversation along. Being listened to enables people to feel able to share more deeply, but we all have our own pace and trying to make someone go faster will have a detrimental effect. Allow them to space to be themselves.