Lost Art of Listening


How do you breathe? I recall someone talking about yoga and Indian meditation, and describing it in terms of learning how to breathe. Of course, most of us would say that we know how to breathe. It comes naturally. However, when I was in symphonic band, I was taught how to breathe properly for playing the saxophone. When I was in choir and taking voice lessons, again I was taught how to breathe. In swimming and in scuba diving, I was taught yet again how to breathe.

Perhaps it is true that we are not always that good at what comes “naturally.”

Some could argue that LISTENING comes naturally. I am not so sure. HEARING comes naturally… but listening involves investing in, and seeking to comprehend, others. People like to argue about what the “Fall of Man” entails. To me, it ultimately is a breakdown in relationship… a general loss of desire to invest ourselves in others, as well as the disinterest to truly understand someone outside of ourselves. Of course, an internal brokenness in ourselves that makes us fail to understand who we are in terms of our relationship with God, Others, and Nature is also true.  Ultimately, this all shows itself in a failure to truly listen.

Linda Stone describes a modern phenomenon “Continuous Partial Attention.” She notes that, “We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. “

There are a number of problems with this, including maintaining a state of constant mini-crisis…. maintaining a fear that “What is going on” is not enough. We must be constantly vigilant to find out “What ELSE is going on.” The biggest problem though is that listening suffers. To give someone partial attention means that we are not really listening. We are skimming.

Listening is a lost art. Pastoral Counseling today is often seen most in terms of listening, not advising or guiding. In fact, in an era where people do not fully listen, those who truly grasp the art of listening are sought out (and many counseling professionals get paid a considerable hourly amount… to listen). For some, the professional counselor and office have taken the place of the confessor and confessional.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes that Christians are often among the biggest offenders when it comes to not listening.

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. 

This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.(In “Life Together,” 1954. Also look at THIS POST)

A friend of ours who is a crisis chaplain, says that one of the greatest gifts you can give another person is “your full undivided attention, seeking as best you can to understand what the other is going through.”

This is not simply about pastoral care or Christian fellowship. In missions, one must listen because effective missions is built off of an understanding of the other— their beliefs, their hopes, and fears, and so forth. It is also built on a mutual trust.

This is a challenge. People don’t become missionaries or pastors because they like to listen. Commonly it is because they like to talk, and enjoy being listened to. It takes a certain amount of empathy (a rare quality indeed) to recognize one’s own yearning to be listened to is a trait of nearly all others as well.money2

Christians are often encouraged not to listen to others. A poll of Americans showed that the religious group least aware of the beliefs of other religious groups is Evangelical Christians. Evangelical Christians don’t listen to others. But if one doesn’t listen to others, it is hardly surprising if others lose interest in listening as well. Several times in sermons I have heard the story of how the US Treasury, or Canadian Treasury, or various banks (or whoever) trains its people to recognize “real money” by only interacting with real money. They are never given counterfeits to inspect. The idea is that if one knows what is true, one can spot a fake. The story is completely false, and frankly does not make sense. But I believe their is a subtle message built into the story that Christians should not listen to others. They should bury themselves cognitively with people they agree with. But Christians need to leave the monastery and walk the roads talking to people. To reach them we must understand them. To understand them, we must listen.

“At the very heart of all forms of counseling” (and other forms of ministry as well) “lies the ability to listen. Listening has been described as being silent with another person in an active way, silently receiving what another human person has to say. Listening, unlike other forms of silence though, requires that the listener be open and active, not asleep or dead. The true listener is quiet and yet sensitive, open, receptive and alive to the one listened to.superstock_4186-4127-225x176

One of the major obstacles to listening is talking. This takes the form of the inability actually to stop speaking or else the “inner talking” that continually interrupts the flow of the speech of the other, especially where one disagrees, by inner responses or disagreement or counterargument.  (Emmanuel Lartey in “In Living Color: An Intercultural Approach to Pastoral Care and Counseling.”)

So a few thoughts that help in the art of listening (NOT a complete list by any means)

  • Intentionally giving full attention to the one speaking (blocking out external distractions)
  • Seek to understand the other, bracketing judgment
  • Be (mostly) silent
  • Periodically clarify and reflect back to demonstrate and ensure understanding, as well as demonstrate interest and encourage more. This is to understand and relate, not challenge or attack.
  • Be emotionally strong and secure. To truly listen is to expose oneself emotionally, and be exposed to deeply personal and significant facets of another’s life.
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