I know a couple who love Jesus, serve selflessly, share the gospel faithfully, and talk at each other. These caring people, whose hearts are in the right place, spend more time talking over each other than listening to each other. It’s a good thing they take their marriage covenant seriously or I doubt they would still be together. When I’m with them, I often find myself asking, “Is anybody listening?”
There is a lot of noise in our culture right now. Voices speaking out about various issues. People reacting to what’s being said about the political climate, racial tensions, gender issues, and an ongoing list of other issues. Individuals are getting angry and lashing out at one another. People are talking at each other instead of to each other. In the midst of the noise, I ask, “Is Anybody Listening?”
As ministry leaders, what does it look like for us to listen well? How can listening be one way to show the love and kindness of Christ?
Effective Listening Starts With Listening To God
What is the starting point to listening well? I believe listening well starts by becoming comfortable with silence and being present with God. The noise of this world makes it hard to hear the still small voice of the Spirit. We live in a culture where we are in constant motion and our brains are being rewired to desire more and more stimulation. Our bodies crave the rush of adrenaline that comes from doing the next thing, and as ministry leaders, we become accustomed to the constant messages that tell us we should be available to help others and meet their needs. We find it difficult to detach ourselves from our phones and just sit in the quiet.
I recently listened to a podcast where John Mark Comer was interviewing Rich Villodas. In this insightful interview, Rich comments that we must will the one thing and choose to be attentive to God’s presence. In that same interaction, John makes the comment that, due to the noise and busyness of our lives, we have literally trained our brains to experience God’s absence. So much more could be said about listening and being present with God, but for this moment, suffice it to say, that listening well and attending to others begins with the rhythm, or dare I say discipline, of listening to God.
Several years ago, I heard a well-known pastor comment that you can’t do the things that count in a hurry. He mentioned that it’s not possible to love well in a hurry. I want to posit that you can’t listen well in a hurry either. We’ve all faced more challenges than normal in these past two years; at least I know that I have, and I’m certain you have as well. Recently, I became even more aware that it’s important to develop a posture of listening. Even as I write this, I feel angst over a conversation I recently had with another Christ-follower who expressed strong opinions about her views regarding gender. It’s not that I wanted to debate or disagree with this individual, I just wanted to walk away and not have the conversation. But as I stopped and listened, I realized that her opinions were not just about gender ideology, but also about her hurts and struggles from the past. Listening without judging kept me talking with her, and when I left the conversation we were still in fellowship with one another. While I disagree with some of her beliefs, I walked away with love and care for her, knowing that we are still able to have a relationship with one another. And even more importantly, we are still talking and listening to each other.
How do we listen well so that we can create faith communities where disagreements can happen but we still value each other as brothers and sisters in Christ?
I think the key is in how we listen.
Scripture has much to say about the connection between listening and speaking. Here are a few verses worth pondering.
- “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” James 1:19
- “Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions.” Proverbs 18:2
- “To answer before listening— that is folly and shame.” Proverbs 18:13
- “Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more.” Mark 4:24
These statements should challenge our thinking and remind us that listening is a quality to be developed and pursued. The old adage that we have one mouth and two ears should not be ignored in the way we interact with one another. I would conjecture that the verses mentioned have a familiar ring to them and that we would all agree with the truth being presented.
What then makes listening so challenging? What are barriers to listening well?
Barriers To Effective Listening
Effective listening is hard work. Our minds generate words at least five times faster than we can verbalize them. The brain’s speed and efficiency can negatively impact our ability to listen well. It’s important to slow our brain so that we can listen effectively. To do that requires energy and focus. Barriers to effective listening tend to fall into three categories: Focus, Feeling and Fellowship.
Focus barriers fall into two overarching principles of patience and jumping to conclusions. Cultivating an understanding heart requires patience. But patience in listening can be challenged by preconceived ideas of the other person, a busy schedule, or even the belief that we know what’s best for the person. All these thoughts can crowd out effective listening. Closely related to impatience is the desire to jump to conclusions. Assuming we know what’s best for the person and believing we have insights into their concerns, can cause us to stop listening and share our thoughts before having heard the whole story.
Feelings barriers have a lot to do with our personal reactions to our own lives that are then transferred to others. “Squishy spots” and unresolved feelings are often rooted in our past experiences. As someone shares something that triggers a memory in our lives, we may find it difficult to continue listening to the person because we are now dealing with our personal feelings. Personal fears and inadequacies can prevent us from listening well. We may feel shame about a past event in our family or about the way we responded to challenging circumstances. Those feelings of shame, uncertainty or inadequacy can cause us to not listen well because we are afraid that we will say or do the wrong thing. Lack of feelings awareness is another barrier to effective communication. Again, difficult past experiences may have caused us to deny our feelings and therefore, make it challenging to listen to someone share their story.
Fellowship barriers fall into two categories: Over-identification or under-identification. As we listen to a person sharing, we may see ourselves in their story and desire to share our story. While it’s helpful to identify with the person’s story, over-identification can cause us to stop listening to them as we think about what we want to share about our story. Limited sharing of your story can be helpful, but too much personal sharing sends a message that you’ve stopped listening to the person. Under-identification happens when you simply can’t relate and are tempted to become dismissive of the person sharing.
There are so many other factors that impact our ability to listen; I’ve just touched on a few. My hope is that each one of us, in positions of leadership and influence, would model well what it means to listen and be present with people who are struggling, experiencing anxiety, displaying anger, and generally lacking certainty and hope. These upcoming months, where we are facing continued uncertainties and another election cycle, are opportunities for the church to bring hope and light by displaying attitudes that value and respect the people inside our churches and those on the outside looking in.
I think Stephen Covey got it right when he said in his 7 Habits book, “Seek first to understand before being understood.” May we be leaders who listen well. May our light shine brightly. May we love well. May we present the character of Christ. May people say of us, “they listened.”