“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” James 1:19-20
Last Sunday, I introduced a sermon series titled “Listening Ears, Humble Hearts, Civil Tongues.” During this series, I’m inviting us to think seriously about the dispositions we need to cultivate as a church family during the upcoming election season. We spent our first week asking, “How may I become a better listener?” In this article, I’d like to reflect further on the question, “What do good listeners have in common?” Some of the following insights were gleaned from the book “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.”
Good listeners begin with the stance of curiosity. Make understanding the other person your initial goal, rather than advocating for your desired viewpoint. Keep asking yourself, “What else do I need to know for that to make more sense?” If you begin the conversation with “I already know what this is about,” you will short-circuit a healthy inquisitiveness that could enrich your understanding.
Good listeners ask questions that minimize defensiveness and elicit a deeper sharing. Here are some example questions: “Can you say a little more about how you see things?” “What information might you have that I don’t?” “How do you see it differently?” “What impact have my actions had on you?” “Can you say a little more about why you think this is my fault?” “Say more about why this is important to you.”
Good listeners avoid statements disguised as questions (“Are you going to wear that?”). Never dress up an assertion as a question; like most forms of passive aggression, it only creates resentment. If you don’t have a question, don’t ask a question. The other person will focus on the sarcasm and the real message won’t get through.
Good listeners acknowledge the feelings of others before wading into problem-solving. You don’t have to agree with their feelings in order to acknowledge them (and you certainly don’t need to tell them they are wrong for feeling them). You simply need to help them feel heard. It’s a short distance between “Do you understand my feelings” to “Do you care about me?” We can acknowledge the importance of other’s feelings even if we disagree with the substance of those feelings.
The most important question that the person on the other side of the conversation has is, “Do you truly want to hear me?” While listening techniques such as eye contact and head nodding are helpful, they will never replace your authentic concern for the person. All of which brings us back to Paul’s foundational admonition in Philippians 2:4, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”