How to Become a Good Listener

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High-quality listening brings good results. But it takes an awareness of how much people need to be listened to, plus time and practice.

When severe emotional fatigue forced me home from the mission field, I knew I needed help. Scared, yet desperate for answers, I made my way to the office of a Christian counselor.

At first, my answers to his questions were guarded. But as I noticed his compassion and understanding, I began to feel safe.

Soon words were pouring out of me as he sat listening intently. Like broad strokes of a paintbrush, my words were recreating whole scenes — memories of past incidents, areas of confusion. His perceptive questions helped me describe my feelings, many of them deeply buried. Talking with someone who cared gave me a chance to hear my own thoughts, and it was the beginning of my cure.

Months later, with my health restored and my heart rejoicing over a new inner security, I said to my counselor, “Listening was one of the best things you ever did for me.” Then I asked, “Is listening a gift?”

“No,” he said.

“How did you learn to listen so well?”

“Through practice,” he replied, assuring me that anyone who wants to can learn how to listen.

“If I can learn how,” I said, “maybe God can use me to help someone else the way you’ve helped me.”

That was two years ago. I’m still committed to listening, because I believe it is one of the most effective means God ever gave us for helping one another. I’m learning that listening is a hard-earned skill, but one that pays rich dividends.

Why Listen?

To increase my own ability to listen, I started to observe and talk to good listeners. I discovered they are motivated to listen because they’ve learned that listening affects human behavior powerfully, and therefore they have patiently trained themselves to listen.

In a small notebook I began to record my own findings on the key role listening plays. First, I learned that listening affirms people. Indeed, it is one of the highest forms of affirmation. When we listen, we invite another person to exist. A boss who pauses at his secretary’s desk to ask her opinion, a mother who switches off the vacuum to listen to her child, a customer who stops to say “How are you?” to a sales clerk — each of these is acknowledging someone’s personhood.

Jesus did this often. In Mark 10, he was surrounded by a huge crowd as he left Jericho. Yet when he heard a blind beggar calling out to him, Scripture says, “Jesus stopped.” He called Bartimus to himself and listened to him. I learned secondly that we strengthen each other through good listening. Reading the gospels, one senses that even Jesus sought the encouragement that comes from sharing inner feelings with those who would listen.

In Prescriptions for a Tired Housewife, James Dobson observes, “For some strange reason, human beings . . . tolerate stress and pressure much more easily if at least one other person knows they are enduring it.” If we learn to ask perceptive questions and then wait for answers, we can be that “one other person” someone needs to share the burdens of his life.

Third, listening helps the speaker clarify his or her thoughts. Dawson Trotman often said, “Thoughts disentangle themselves when they pass over the lips or through the fingertips” — that is, by talking and by writing. As we give people an opportunity to talk, we help them sort out tangled thoughts. “The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters,” Proverbs 20:5 reads, “but a man of understanding draws them out.”

Jesus drew people out. For example, he was not in a rush when he initiated dialogue with the woman at the well (John 4), knowing it would take time for her to shed surface layers of theological questions.

The same kind of unrushed talk-time helps me when I’m trying to sort out an issue I am struggling with. At my job, my supervisor has created an atmosphere in which I am free to talk with him at any time. Last week when I sensed pressure, we talked. In the process I found myself identifying the source of the pressure. Expressing feelings encouraged me to be honest with myself, something not always easy for me. His willingness to listen helped me to take an accurate reading of where I am and to commit myself to some corrections.

A good listener gives us the opportunity to express our views without being judged, interrupted, or redirected. We feel safe and unhurried, so we are more likely to express what is really going on within us.

The fourth point I discovered is that good listening improves the accuracy of our responses to what other people say. In Proverbs 25:11–12 (NASB) we read, “Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances.” Like an earring of gold and an ornament of fine gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear.

Solomon knew that good advice succeeds only in “right circumstances” and when directed to “a listening ear.”

While I was in the earlier stages of “burnout,” and quietly fighting depression, I attended a retreat with other missionaries. A friend and I were making beds one morning, and I asked her, “How do you handle depression?”

As she flipped the blanket up over the sheets, she chuckled and said, “Me? Oh, I just go out of one depression and into the next.” But that was the end of our conversation.

I’ve learned since that many people are often in the same situation I was in that day: Behind their question is a statement, and behind the statement, hidden from view, is a feeling. When I asked my friend, “How do you handle depression?” I was trying to say, “I’m depressed.” And crouched behind that admission was a feeling even harder to express: “I’m afraid.” I needed to express all this, but couldn’t.

How does good listening help in such a situation? First, good listening encourages the speaker to continue talking. The first problem mentioned is rarely the real one. Only as the speaker continues does the conversation head toward root issues.

Listening long enough will help us hear the real statement or question and to uncover the feeling behind it. Unfortunately, many of us are too preoccupied with ourselves when we listen. Instead of concentrating on what is being said, we are busy either deciding what to say in response or mentally rejecting the other person’s point of view.

In Proverbs 18:13 we read, “He who answers before listening — that is his folly and his shame.” I cringe when I recall the times I’ve poured out advice only to discover I was answering a question that hadn’t been asked. Such mistakes are costly because they leave the questioner feeling misunderstood and apprehensive.

Also, good listening often defuses the emotions that are a part of the problem being discussed. Sometimes releasing these emotions is all that is needed to solve the problem. The speaker may neither want nor expect us to say anything in response.

One morning I was having tea with a close friend of mine who had come home from the mission field. In the security of her love, I opened up and told her of a deep struggle I was experiencing. “I feel so alone,” I said, my eyes filling with tears. “It’s as if God isn’t there.”

She listened, then slipped her hand over mine and squeezed it. Her eyes were moist with compassion. “He’s there,” she said.

That was her only response. No theological arguments. No “You-shouldn’t-feel-that-way” condemnation. Somehow, she knew my doubts would pass, and that I simply needed to express myself.

Of course there are times when expressing pent-up feelings is only part of the solution. But for me, expression is usually necessary first.

How to Improve

One of the best ways to learn to listen is to study the life of Jesus. Read through the gospels and watch this masterful teacher affirm people, draw them out, and accurately speak to their real needs. Jesus motivates us to listen better.

The Proverbs are also an excellent source of practical advice on listening. I’ve taken a colored pencil and underlined all the verses in Proverbs that teach me how to listen.

To make what I’ve learned about listening an actual part of me, I’ve adopted a five-part approach.

First, I’ve memorized several verses on listening such as Isaiah 50:4 —

The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.

Each morning I take time to pray over several verses on listening. I ask God to give me an ear that hears and a tongue that sustains others.

Second, I’ve stopped thinking of listening as only a passive activity. “Listening,” says former Senator S.I. Hayakawa of California, “requires entering actively and imaginatively into another person’s situation and trying to understand a frame of reference different from your own.” To do this means fighting distractions, and forcing myself to ask, “What is this person saying to me? What does he or she mean?” I don’t want to be like the fool in Proverbs 18:2, who “takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (RSV).

Third, I consciously withdraw so as to create space for another to open up and talk. In The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen quotes James Hillman, director of studies at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland: “For the other person to open and talk requires a withdrawal of the counselor. I must withdraw to make room for the other.... This withdrawal, rather than going-out-to-meet the other, is an intense act of concentration.”

After listening I used to make comments such as, “I know just how you feel.” Then I would recount something similar that had happened to me. Sometimes my stories helped, but many times they were just a distraction. I’m learning to put myself aside when I listen.

Fourth, I put more emphasis on affirmation than on answers. When I listened in the past I had a compulsion to rush in and “fix things,” as if the other person were asking me to “do something.” I’m learning that, although there are times where I need to give an answer or help direct someone, many times God simply wants to use me as a channel of his affirming love as I listen with compassion and understanding. As the other person finds security in this acceptance, he begins to believe God loves him. In this atmosphere of affirmation, God is able to work with this person, and the results are much better than anything my feeble tinkering could do.

Finally, I look at listening as a skill to master little by little. Progress is slow and on some days I’m discouraged at how poorly I listen.

In order to improve, I’ve asked those I work with to help me by pointing out times when I fail to listen. I also use the time driving home from work to review the day. I think back through my encounters with others at the office, over the phone, at lunch. I make mental notes of situations I bungled, times when I failed to listen. I relive conversations and mentally phrase the questions I wish I had asked, the responses I wish I had given. This mental practice prepares me for the next time.

It takes time and practice to learn to listen. And it takes a caring heart. A fourth-grade teacher once asked her class, “What is listening?” After a few moments of silence, one little girl raised her hand. “Listening,” she said, “is wanting to hear.”

Lord, make us a people who want to hear.

©1983 Discipleship Journal. Posted with permission. All rights reserved.

is an author and a former missionary.