“…A Faith That Is Authentic…” Part 2: Listening

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When last you joined us–in Part 1–I had explained why, though I compete for “Most Dysfunctional Functional Person in the World” (I’ve never actually won, but I’ve come in 4th like six times), I also have the crazy privilege of profoundly influencing people, sometimes being one of the most influential people in their lives…and not even in a bad way.

After writing several posts and series on how people like us (go ahead, define that) survive and seek to thrive and trust God in the world, I’m taking the bold step of trying a series on what I do right.  That’s what this is.  I think I’m special only in the sense that God has worked in my life in unusual ways and taught me some thing that appear to be a bit off the beaten path.  If they help others, that’s worth sticking my neck out and offering them.


Listening.

I don’t know if I’m a better listener than others.  I do know I listen a lot (I’m also rumored to talk a lot, which means I must spend a lot of time with people).  Listening is both easy and crazy hard work.  I’ve given a lot of thought to listening:  what it is, how it works, why so many people suck at it, and how transformative it can be in people’s lives.

  1. (and also 2., 3., etc.)  Care

The difference between merely waiting for someone to stop talking and listening to them is caring what they say.  Caring what people say is one of the most practical ways we can love them. Christianity is really big on love, since the founder kept commanding things like “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Here’s a crazy thing:  Jesus was a great listener.

Here’s a crazy thing:  Jesus was a great listener.  The wisest person ever to live listened well to others.  Had the most important things to say in history, listened well to others.  My favorite example is that on the way to heal Jairus’s daughter, Jesus stopped when the woman in the crowd touched him.  She was already healed physically.  But he wanted to identify her, look her in the eye, hear her story, and then send her in peace, proclaiming to her and everyone else that her faith had healed her.  Jesus healed her emotionally and socially.  He showed her that she mattered.  He loved her by listening.

People generally know if you are paying attention or not.  Paying attention is an investment in another human being.  It’s called “paying” for a reason.  It requires concentration, setting aside anything more urgent-feeling, and quieting the voices shouting “Squirrel!” and “I’m hungry,” and “Ooh, she’s cute.”  Eye contact helps. Active listening, i.e. asking real questions and giving ongoing verbal and non-verbal cues that indicate we are tracking, these demonstrate that we care what the other person says and help us succeed at listening, at the same time.

For me, real listening means finding a way to connect with what the other person is saying.

For me, real listening means finding a way to connect with what the other person is saying.  We’re looking for common ground, finding a point of empathy or sympathy or even finding a parallel that relates what they are saying to what you’ve experienced.

You might say, “Hmm, that sounds like thinking instead of paying attention, and talking instead of listening.”  Nope.  It’s the deeper level of listening, in which we’re processing what someone else says and conveying, “I get you.”  People like to be gotten.  It helps them know they matter.  It helps validate their existence.  It helps them not to feel alone in the world.  It helps give them hope.  It’s a really big deal.

The trick, however, is to avoid using active listening to hijack the conversation.  Saying, “Oh, yeah, that’s like the time when I…” and going off on a story is the opposite of active listening.  Instead, we’re inviting the other person to say more.  When you have something in common you care about, there is freedom to connect more deeply.


“But Mike, what if I seriously don’t like someone?”

That kind of listening falls under “love your enemies.”  The best and quickest way to communicate to someone that they don’t matter is to refuse to listen to them.  Interrupt, ignore, act bored.  Very convincing.  But when we choose to look for common ground, we give God a chance to change our hearts toward them.  Even if our hearts stay right where they were, God can use our kindness and attention for their hearts.  It’s possible, if you are a decent human being, that the people you don’t like have something damaged in them.  A little listening can start to heal.  I’m not promising it will fix them.  They might still be boors.  But call it compassion or Random Acts of Kindness, in God’s Kingdom it’s a big deal.


“But Mike, I don’t have time.”

Yeah, time is the most valuable resource we have.  And people are the most important way to spend your time.  Seems like a good match-up to me.

In a specific situation, you really might not have time.  Politeness goes a long way there.  But if it’s a pattern, we’re having a different conversation, one about priorities and what (or who) we really value.

Jesus said a requirement of discipleship to him is “Deny yourself.”  For those of us who have committed to trying–and believe God’s Spirit works in us to make this possible–it still turns out to be bloody difficult.

The biggest challenge to good listening is that we care about ourselves much more than we care about other people.

The biggest challenge to good listening is that we care about ourselves much more than we care about other people.  We probably have a few folks in the favored inner circle who matter to us more, or whose good opinion we value (or crave).  Everyone else falls way short.

I’m not trying to expand this post to general discipleship or How to Be Human 101, but choosing to listen to people, really listen to them, will help us to care about them more, and caring about them more will lead to listening better and more.  Listening doesn’t only change others; it changes us.  Listening changes our hearts.  It’s a form of denying ourselves, of rejecting the notion that I am the most important person in the world, that I am the only one with anything intelligent or insightful or amusing to say.

“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them”
― Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

I don’t think this negates what I said about finding connecting points; I think this is the difference between working at true listening and hearing only what we want to hear.  My best means of knowing who others are, in order to love them as themselves, is to listen to them.  We make all kinds of crazy assumptions about others, and do endless worlds of projecting on them, but we can start to solve this by truly hearing what people say.

There is a version of active listening (though I think it’s faux-listening) that herds people’s words into the boxes we want them.  You’ve probably experienced it when talking with someone who assumes you agree with them about politics or social issues.  It’s the classic, “You hear what you want to hear.”  Merton describes precisely this: loving the reflection of ourselves we find in others–even when we’ve invented that reflection.

Getting to know someone and affirming them for who they are is a gift of kindness.  

Getting to know someone and affirming them for who they are is a gift of kindness.  It’s a means of empowering the other person.  Asking real questions, not rhetorical or obvious ones, but help-me-understand-better questions about someone else, about their interests or joys or experiences, leads us to find out for ourselves who they are.  Real questions can serve as an antidote to our projecting.

That leads me to my last point:  real, honest-to-goodness listening means resisting the urge to judge.  I won’t judge you by telling you how much you judge others, but I judge people way too much.  Judging, unfortunately, short-circuits caring.  It’s bad for my heart.  Jesus says not to until we’ve first judged ourselves and even then only as a means to helping the other person grow, which requires developing the trust to be able to confront him or her.  There is no Scriptural warrant to judge others in our hearts and just leave it there.*

If I’m committing to listen to someone, I’m committing to see the good in them, to how God is present with them.

 

If I’m committing to listen to someone, I’m committing to see the good in them, to see how God is present with them.  If we believe God dwells in us and always seeks us, then we can ask God’s Spirit in us to help us identify God’s presence in others. That doesn’t mean I only want to hear the happy stuff. Sometimes God is most present in people’s pain.  I’m a little scarred myself, so I often find hearing others’ pain as the truest way to know them.  When someone offers you their pain, they are honoring you.  I don’t mean their drama, I mean their actual pain.**  They are being honest and vulnerable, and these are both gifts and godly qualities.


As I reach my conclusion, I realize there is so much more to say.  If you have thoughts, please do share them.

 

I find it inexplicable how people trust me, often quickly, sometimes instantly.  People will talk to me freely and later I’ll hear that they are introverts–but I had no idea.  I joke sometimes that this is my X-power, or that there’s something on my face that invites it but that I can’t see in the mirror.  In truth, I don’t understand it, but I believe God has given me a gift that people feel safe with me.  I mention this because, while I can give you all the steps that I’m able to identify, the final intangible just is.
I think better listening could change the world and I know that better listening could change someone’s world.  God will probably send someone to you this week.  May we all have eyes to see and ears to hear.
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*This doesn’t mean we relinquish the ability to discern right from wrong; this means we give other people grace.  Jesus came to save the world, not to judge it.  If we’re Jesus followers, judging isn’t our job; loving and serving are our jobs.
**This distinction is tricky.  Listening to high schoolers a lot, which I do, there is ample opportunity to hear drama.  In that case, I think love means hearing them well and them helping them to gain perspective.

4 thoughts on ““…A Faith That Is Authentic…” Part 2: Listening

  1. Pat

    You might have been looking right at me as you wrote this!, I will try very hard to keep these thoughts close by, and practice them often. Thanks for this well written piece.

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