Listening is Love
It happened nearly 13 years ago, but I can still see it clearly. My daughter-in-law Susie pulled her chair up close to my 88-year-old mother’s chair because she knew Mom couldn’t hear so well, especially with my young grandchildren playing and talking nearby. Susie asked Mom questions about her life and then listened ever so intently, making eye contact with Mom.
I never asked Mom about it later, but I am sure she felt completely heard and loved. Observing the total focus Susie gave Mom and her story made a deep impression on me. As Sue Bender in her book Everyday Sacred: A Woman’s Journey Home quotes a friend as saying, “Listening is love.” Have you experienced that kind of listening, that kind of love?
Contrast that with conversations you’ve had in which the other person constantly checked her phone for text messages or scanned the room to see who else was there.
Which kind of listener are you? If you’re like most people, a little of each. It depends on how your day is going, who’s talking, what’s happening in and around you, and more. In the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, the third definition of “hear” is: “to listen to; give or pay attention to.” And “listen” is defined as: “to give attention with the ear; attend closely for the purpose of hearing.” So it would seem that attention is an important part of listening and really hearing.
Just how easy is it these days to pay attention? Consumer Reports says that the average American is exposed to 247 commercial messages a day, whether by TV, radio, email, direct mail, newspaper, magazine, or billboard. In fact, many public restrooms have advertising on the inside of stall doors so we can’t escape such messages even in a bathroom. Add to this all the messages we receive from coworkers, family, friends, and others with whom we have daily contact. We are at sensory overload very quickly. (to top of page)
It’s no wonder, then, that one of our survival mechanisms is tuning out many of the messages we hear every day. We simply have to. What does that mean for how we develop our listening skills for those relationships that really matter— listening to God and really hearing our family members, friends, coworkers, and others who are important to us?
As a life coach I know the importance of listening. It’s a skill I honed as a journalist and deepened in this new career. I remember being surprised in my coach training program when we were told that most coaching is done by phone. There are reasons for that: Many clients don’t want to leave home for yet another appointment and prefer using a quiet space in their home for coaching conversations. Phone coaching offers a sense of safety to speak about issues that matter, and clients talk more freely in the privacy of their home. And phone coaching means you can select a coach from any city or state—or even from another country.
Though some clients desire face-to-face meetings, most prefer phone coaching. Here’s what I’ve discovered: My hearing sense really ramps up when I coach by phone. I can’t see facial expression, so I’m listening even more deeply for what’s said, voice inflection, pauses, what’s underneath the words that are said, and even for what’s not said. My intuition operates at full capacity. I am amazed how much I hear.
Notice that the words silent and listen have the same letters. To really hear what someone is saying, to really listen, we have to be silent. We need to silence both external and internal voices (we often have as much internal chatter as we have messages coming at us from the outside).
Before each coaching session, I spend at least 10 minutes in prayer and meditation, clearing the channels and asking God’s wisdom and guidance. I want to clear out my own concerns and cares and focus completely on what my client brings to the conversation. I want to be open to the Holy Spirit’s movement in that conversation so my questions and ideas will be inspired and helpful in moving my client forward with her life. (to top of page)
When we are heard, our true selves can emerge and begin to unfold. We come to life. We need the safety of being heard and validated before we dare open up. A friend of mine who’s a spiritual director often speaks of “listening someone into existence.” And in my 14 years of working with a spiritual director, I know the gift in that.
Quaker author Douglas Steere put it this way: “To ‘listen’ another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.”
If listening is love, it’s worth considering skills we can develop. See your listening skills as an acquired sense. Keep in mind that God gave us two ears and one mouth. We are best served if we use them in direct proportion.
To listen well and see communication as a two-way process, we might:
- ASK more questions.
- HOLD our responses and really listen to answers. Avoid forming your response while the other is talking. You might even say, “Let me just take a minute to think about what you said.”
- LISTEN for context: What underlies and surrounds the comments?
- KEEP eye contact.
- KNOW your own triggers and filters so they don’t get in the way. For example, in our first year or two together my fiancé and I had to check our assumptions about what the other was saying to see what came from our first marriages or past relationships. Such things can impede real listening.
- RESTRAIN yourself from giving advice. Focus on listening and empathy. If people want advice, they’ll ask for it. Nine times out of 10 they just want to be heard. Ask, if you’re unsure.
- LISTEN for what’s not being said.
- WATCH for non-verbal cues (posture, eye, or hand movements).
- DROP your own agenda.
- ASK for clarification if you don’t understand.
- PUT ASIDE assumptions about what you’re going to hear.
- PARAPHRASE or summarize what you’ve heard and understood of what the other is saying to be sure you got it right. This moves the conversation forward in a way that connects both of you in a more meaningful way.
- LOOK for information, not confirmation of what you already think.
- SUSPEND judgment. Sometimes we listen but when we hear something that makes us squirm, we stop the conversation.
- BE OPEN. You may disagree. Acknowledge the right of the other to her opinion and her story.
- STOP talking. It’s that simple. (to top of page)
“… writing 9 percent, reading 16 percent, speaking 30 percent and 45 to 50 percent of our day [we’re] engaged in listening, to people, music, TV, radio, etc. About 75 percent of that time we are forgetful, preoccupied, or not paying attention. One of the factors influencing this statistic is that the average attention span for an adult in the U.S. is 22 seconds. It’s no surprise to note the length of television commercials, are usually anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds. This constant change of focus makes it more difficult to listen for any significant length of time. Immediately after we hear someone speak, we remember about half of what they have said. A few hours later we remember only about 10 to 20 percent. Yet, less than 5 percent of us have ever concentrated on developing our skills in listening. When people hear these numbers, they often say: ‘This is so interesting. I know that I spend hours preparing to speak. I don’t think I’ve ever consciously prepared to listen.’”
The final sentence is especially telling, isn’t it? We spend hours preparing a speech—and virtually no time preparing to listen. As Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
We need only turn on the TV to any talk show, or this year to primary elections and the presidential election, to witness the lack of hearing. People talk over the top of one another. They ask questions that are longer than any answer. They completely miss each other’s point, whether intentionally or because they simply haven’t listened.
And are we really any different? Are we contributing to the high noise level? What are we missing in our relationships when we don’t hear?
Listening to God
Most of us would admit that our prayer life suffers from the same problem. It’s often a one-way conversation: us talking to God. It’s too easy to hang up after we finish our monologue. Remember to mute your line and just listen … for how can we hear the still, small voice of God without even listening? Practice the words of Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God!” It’s far too easy to listen without really hearing, too. Audrey West’s Bible study reminds us how little Jesus’ disciples really heard, and understood, of what Jesus had told them. They heard the parables over and over—and still missed the point.
This is a reminder to us, too, that we need to hear Jesus’ words over and over. And we need to spend time pondering them. As West says, “The parable and Jesus’ explanation invite us to linger with Jesus’ words, to ‘hear’ the fullness of his teaching.” Linger: What a lovely invitation.
Linger: “to remain or stay on in a place longer than is usual or expected, as if from reluctance to leave.” Another meaning of that word is: “to dwell in contemplation, thought or enjoyment.”
What would happen if we linger in our important conversations? If we linger with the words afterward?
What if we saw our conversations as sacred? If they were about being present—and being a presence? How might our discussions change in our families, our communities, our congregations, our denominations (and between denominations), our society and our world?
Hear these words from J. Jeffries McWhirter in his book Seek Wisdom: “So let us take time together respecting the other’s freedom, encouraging without hurrying, understanding that some things may never be brought to light but others may emerge if given time. Each, through this listening, enriches the other with the price- less gift of intimacy.”
Why not start today with just one or two changes in your listening habits? It’s a good way to share God’s love and God’s light in the world. After all, “listening is love.”
Sonia C. Solomonson spends much of her time listening as a lifecoach with Way2Grow Coaching in Streamwood, Ill. (to top of page)