How good a listener are you? Most of us would say that we are good listeners, but careful reflection on our listening would probably reveal several things that contradict that assessment.
First, as we listen, we often spend a considerable amount of time thinking about how we are going to respond to the person we are listening to. We are thinking, “How do I avoid seeming disinterested? How do I communicate that I am an active participant?”
Second, although we may hear and understand what the speaker is saying, we may be trying to find a link to our own life. We are asking ourselves, “Have we experienced something similar to what the speaker is recounting? Do we know someone that the other person knows? Do we agree or disagree with the speaker’s statements?”
Third, we may actually be rather distracted or thinking about how to move the conversation into an area that we are interested in or know more about. We think, “What’s in this conversation for me? What can the other person share that will further my goals?”
Fourth, we just may not be interested and trying to find a way to disengage as soon as possible!
In Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community, Dietrich Bonhoeffer discusses the holy obligation to listen to another person. He wrote:
“There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here too our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God. It is little wonder that we are no longer capable of the greatest service of listening that God has committed to us, that of hearing our brother's confession, if we refuse to give ear to our brother on lesser subjects. . . . But Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.”
Listening is a holy task. Those of us who are life coaches learn very quickly that when we actively listen to the person we are coaching that we are creating a sacred space for that person to think out loud, voice the desires of the heart, and contemplate the opportunities and challenges previously unconsidered.
Perhaps our lack of listening skills also says something about our ability or inability to hear a word from God. If I am in a hurry, already have my mind made up, or am trying to justify myself, I do not have an ear open to hear what God is saying to me.
We can learn how to listen better, but it takes not only training but a transformed mindset that is non-judgmental and caring but empowering as well. In many ways, this is a spiritual discipline.