Have you ever woke up in the middle of a conversation and realized you’d stopped listening? I know I have. My mind wandered off, thinking about what I needed to do later, what I was going to say next, who walked by the window–and the person I am with became background chatter.
Many of us listen poorly. And when we listen poorly, we love poorly. I want to be a better listener because I know that listening well is a concrete way I can love others more.
1. Be Present. This means I intentionally focus on the person who is in front of me. While that might seem obvious, I can’t count how many times I’ve caught myself thinking about other appointments I have coming up, all the while pretending to listen to the person in front of me. Over a decade ago, I felt Jesus challenge me on this, and I decided that, in order to love the person I am meeting with, they need to be the most important person in my life for that particular moment. For some of us, that means leaving our phones alone, refusing to fiddle with them during conversation (in fact, why not shut it off?). For others, try sitting in a way that will minimize distractions, like not facing the door or window. Do what you need to do to fix your attention on the person you are with, whether that’s your kid, your spouse, your friend or your workmate. The person in front of us is important, valuable and worth hearing. I want to treat them that way.
2. Be Inquisitive. In order to listen well, I try to ask good questions. Not only does that keep me engaged in the conversation, but open-ended, curious questions invite people to talk more about themselves and what they love. I learned from a couple friends of mine the power of inquiry and the gift of getting people to talk about themselves. When you hang with people gifted in this way, you realize at the end of the evening that you’ve talked a lot, you’ve been heard, and you feel like a million bucks. I want people to feel like that when they talk to me.
3. Be Humble. Specifically, don’t be afraid to say “I don’t understand what you are talking about. Please explain that to me.” Don’t fake understanding and realize too late that you can’t listen well because you can’t grasp what’s being said. That kind of pride will not only stunt your ability to listen, it’ll hinder your ability to learn. Confused about something? Try restating what’s being said to see if you’re getting it right. If you aren’t, your friend or colleague or son or daughter will love explaining it, especially if you are asking open-ended, curious questions about something they love (point #2). You’ll find that people who employ obscure medical terms or arcane theological jargon or geek talk are willing and passionate teachers. Speak up and ask.
4. Be Thankful. I want to always say thank you. Thank you for sharing your story with me. Thank you for your courage and honesty. Thank you for telling me about that. Thank you for the honor of hearing you. If I can, I tell them specifically what I appreciate, how I’ve been challenged, or what I’ve learned. When we do that, we show how much we value them and how our listening to them has been an expression of our love.
I want to listen well so that people are well loved. These four disciplines are helping me, as I continue to work at them in each and every conversation.
What has helped you become a better listener?
Of the four disciplines I give, which one is the most challenging for you?