I recently suggested two ways that the average person can make a difference in the world, even in response to the world’s largest senseless tragedies. They are: 1) to volunteer time on a regular, committed basis with an established group, and 2) to give away money on a regular, committed basis to a group that you think is doing good in the world. The third, and perhaps most difficult, is to commit to becoming a consistently better listener. In a world in which people usually ignore, shout down or shoot down one another, the habit of consistently good listening could get you noticed strictly for the surprise value. It is the last thing anyone expects. Many of my clients have even voiced that they do not feel that they deserve to be heard, or that what they have to say has any value. If I quickly respond that I care about their ideas and their story, and that I want to hear their words, they usually respond that they suspect that I only listen because I am paid to listen. My protestations to the contrary do not change the client’s view on this, which is really sad. Is there so little effective listening in the world that people don’t even expect to be heard unless they pay for it? Does the average person understand that real listening can’t be bought, any more than real lovemaking can be bought? How would the world be changed by the addition of a few more great listeners?
In the interest of becoming a better listener, and thereby changing the world, perhaps it would be helpful first to think back to the last really great conversation you enjoyed, and what made that conversation so worthwhile. It may have been the subject matter, such as talking about your favorite sports team with a co-worker, whom you had not known was a like-minded fan. Lively debate among friends can be just as satisfying. Other conversations are memorable because they addressed one of life’s deeper questions, or touched a deep emotion. A conversation that includes old friends and new friends can reveal hidden aspects of your personality and your friend’s personality. A really good conversation cannot be replaced by other forms of human communication—as efficient, interesting, or pleasurable as those other forms of communication might be in their own ways. It’s possible that you can’t remember the last time you had a really great conversation, and that’s a symptom in itself that the world needs more good listeners.
Here’s how to get started:
- Be fully present. Look at the person, not e-gadgets, media, a beautiful person walking past, etc. Notice body language, mood, and facial expressions, but don’t comment on them.
- Listen to the whole statement, all the way to the period.
- Ask follow-up questions, such as “What happened next?” or “How did that change you?” If talking with a close friend, it is appropriate to ask about emotions, as in, “How did you feel back then?” Remember to follow points #1 and #2 above while the person answers your question.
- Be “free”. There is no hidden fee for your time, and the other person is not expected to reciprocate by listening to you just because you listened to them.
- Repeat to the speaker what you think you heard. Ask if you were correct.
- Be safe. If people know that you can be trusted not to broadcast their personal information to the world, or use their information for your own personal gain, then they will be more real with you.
Putting the above six listening skills into practice requires a genuine desire to connect with the other person. It is important to communicate that you are more interested in the speaker than in lively debate, personality traits, useful information, or an emotional experience. Just being fully present with the other person, and suspending one’s own life for a few minutes in order to experience the other’s world, is an incarnational act, a free gift from the listener to the speaker. The experience of being exclusively and completely heard by another human being can be life-changing for someone living in an over-scheduled, media- and technology-filled world. Being heard lets people know that they are not alone with their problems. It lets them know that there is healing after tragedy, and that there is someone who cares about what they think is beautiful and important. Good listening requires a little sacrifice, but can powerfully communicate Christ’s presence in the world, and thereby make the world a better place.