The Lost Art of Listening

“My wife said I never listen to her… At least I think that’s what she said.”

The quip would be funny if it wasn’t so true. Many of us have lost the ability to listen.

Cable news has replaced thoughtful analysis with senseless shouting. Universities have substituted civil dialogue with violent protests. If our nation is to live up to its name and once again be the “United States,” we must rediscover the art of listening. Here are three keys to better listening.

1. Listening must be cultivated. King Solomon introduced his son to the idea of “making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding” (Proverbs 2:2). What a concept! Talk is easy; listening is hard. We love to make our voice heard. Listening, on the other hand, takes discipline. It involves humbling ourselves, admitting there may information we still lack, or an alternate perspective we can benefit from. In the rare times we do listen, we tend to surround ourselves with people who think and act just like us, re-enforcing our own biases. But that’s not necessarily listening. We must also be willing to engage opposing viewpoints, to avoid stereotypes, and to look for areas of common ground. God gave us two ears but only one mouth. Maybe that’s because he wants us to spend twice as much time listening as talking.

2. Listening must be compassionate. It is a simple expression of Colossians 3:12: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” When we listen, we are trying to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. Our first goal is not to win an argument; it’s to understand the other side. Stephen Covey in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” suggests there are five levels of listening. Lower stages include hearing a voice, but only pretending to listen. Or practicing selective listening while forming a rebuttal. But true listening is empathetic listening. It is listening with an intent to understand, to get inside their frame of reference and understand them both intellectually and emotionally. That’s true listening.

3. Listening must be critical. Not mean-spirited, but with discernment. Learn to be a critical thinker. “Test everything; hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). I think some people are afraid to listen because they think listening is the same as agreement. But the two are not the same. When listening, we’re just trying to better understand the other person, and giving them the same respect we’d ask them to give us. Hear them out. It may even be helpful to ask follow-up questions, or re-phrase their statement into our own words to make sure we heard it right. Only then can we decide whether we agree or disagree with their viewpoint, and why.

As a Christian, my only reliable source of truth is the Bible. It’s the gold standard by which all truth claims must be judged. So a helpful follow up question to ask is, “What does the Bible say?” Like the Berean church in Acts 17:11, we should examine the scriptures daily, to see if these things are so. The more we get to know our Bibles, the better we can navigate the murky waters of ideas and competing worldviews.

Cultivate a listening ear. Be compassionate. Think critically. If we all practice these keys to better listening, perhaps we’ll see a bit of civility restored to public discourse.

Today’s post first appeared in the Thursday edition of our local newspaper, The Hi Desert Star.

Photo credit: Olaf Meyer via Flickr