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The art of listening

Monday, 20 April, 2009

Following on from my post on the art of conversation-making, I thought I would focus on one very important aspect of conversation-making: listening. It's funny: I used to think that everyone was better at social stuff than I was. Now that I'm older and more mature, I realise that not everyone is—that many have certain social skills down pat (e.g. making someone feel at home), but certain other social skills are lacking—in particular, knowing how to listen.

I've been thinking about this recently because of things that have happened to some of my friends. I was talking to one friend on instant messenger the other day. Her husband also has depression, and he's been sick for a long while, so life has been quite hard for them both. She was telling me that a couple of people had told her that she should just be happy that it wasn't worse for them. Her friends were well-intentioned—they were trying to encourage her—but instead they made her feel like she was a bad person and that she should work harder at being content. Similarly, Haydn blogged recently about his experiences of telling other people about his relationship with his father:

While my dad never really used his fists with me, his words were effective substitutes. That and the sharp, angry, sniping looks that were a threat of impending blows if I didn't assent to doing what he thought I should do. I lived in constant fear of my dad, and I still find no comfort in the love that he expresses toward me. There's too much bad baggage there. I've been told by family and even some Christian friends that I ‘must’ have been partly responsible for the way he treated me, but that to me is a disgusting insult. There were many moments where instead of protecting, comforting, and guiding me my dad rejected and even attacked me, withholding his love and affection because I'd upset his worldly, upper middle class dreams of what kind of son he thought I should have been. Rather than loving me for who I was an accepting my personality, he responded with ruthless rage and kept me at a distance, terrified of revealing his heart to me and so that I could never get to know him for who he really was. He's lied to me so many times about things as small as finances and small personal details, to bigger things like his feelings for me. It's caused me no small amount of grief and even now it affects me.

When I confessed these wounds to many of my Christian friends and pastors, they made things actually worse than better, and later regretted telling anyone. What many of them said to me is pop psychology (Oprah-style), mixed with the gospel. Typically, they said something like, “Just get over it, forget the past, and forgive your dad. Go back to God and read your Bible.” It was the classic mantra of God, prayer, Bible, and Jesus will take all the pain away. No-one ever told me that my feelings of hurt and grief were real and that they were a normal reaction to being sinned against. Everyone told me that my anger was toxic, when actually much of it was a righteous response to being hurt. I'm not saying that all of my reactions were sinless and I have sin to repent of in how I responded to my dad, but the fact is I was sinned against many times by my dad who in many ways failed to be the dad that God wanted him to be. Nothing can take away that pain or remove the reality of it, and I'm angry at those pastors and friends who tried to reduce the reality of my pain with words like “Just forgive and forget”. That word ‘just’ is criminal, and to make things worse, none of those dills whom I confided in ever told me how to process the pain to lead to forgiveness. I just ‘had’ to do it and I was made to feel guilty for the righteous sense of anger that I had. I actually need to forgive them too, just as I need to do so with my father, but the process of forgiveness is not easy.

It's probably worth me saying, at this point, that hearing about these things that happened to my friends makes me feel angry (godly anger, Philip, not unrighteous anger), and that that anger is partly tainted by own experiences: similar things have happened to me in the past. It appalls me that it's Christians who have hurt my friends by failing to acknowledge their feelings because you'd think that it would be Christians, of all people, who would understand—who would be sympathetic—who would offer a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, a kind word.

But I've come to the conclusion that it's ignorance—that listening is not a social skill that we are trained in from childhood the way that we might have been trained to greet our elders with respect or make sure that if they're a guest in our house, their needs are attended to (food, drink, where the bathroom is, etc.). Many of us have never been taught how to listen, and many of us haven't really seen what it looks like because, in the world around us, people talk more than they listen. Observe some of the conversations around you and you'll find that it's mostly people just talking—saying things one after the other. Oh sure, they do listen to what the other person says—they're attentive to the words; most of us have been trained to do that because otherwise that would just be rude. The kind of listening I'm talking about goes deeper. It's learning to engage with what the other person is saying—to enter their experience—to empathise and sympathise—to look at the world from their eyes. Most of us don't do that because we're so stuck in our own skins and we find it hard to move beyond them into other people's worlds. But doing this is actually a really good way to fulfill the so-called Golden Rule: “love your neighbour as yourself”.

I've been trying to think how I learned to listen and I'm drawing blanks. I think it was a combination of me being naturally shy and less talkative than those around me, being more of an observer than a participant in life (that's the writer in me), and being curious about other people and how they differed from me—wanting to know what life was like for them. I also had good role models: both girls who were my trainers during my two years doing MTS were godly women and excellent listeners. I think perhaps that if it weren't for them and the unspoken imperative to seek the good of others, I probably wouldn't have learned the skill and learned to apply the skill at all.

What not to say

Let's get the obvious out of the way. Here are a few things that you shouldn't say when someone is telling you how things are going for them at the moment:

What to do

Good listening is not so much about what you say as what you do. As I said above, good listening is about engaging with what the other person is saying—entering their experience with them—looking at the world from their eyes, and then in turn empathising and sympathising with them about what's happened.

Some of these points overlap but I'm sure you get the gist of it:

  1. Listen more than speak. Take note of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:

    For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:


    a time to be born, and a time to die;
    a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
    a time to kill, and a time to heal;
    a time to break down, and a time to build up;
    a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
    a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
    a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
    a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
    a time to seek, and a time to lose;
    a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
    a time to tear, and a time to sew;
    a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
    a time to love, and a time to hate;
    a time for war, and a time for peace.

    There are times when you should shut up, and there are times when you should speak. Good listening is more about shutting up.

  2. Try to understand what it's like to be in their shoes: This will mean doing all or some of the following:

    • Ask for more information. Why did he do that? Why did she do that? Is that normal?
    • Clarify the bits you don't understand. Who is this person again? How do you know him? Why did you need to go and do that thing? Was there another way?
    • Ask questions to help you flesh out the context of the situation. What happened last week? Was this before or after you guys got married? Have you had this problem before?
    • Ask questions that tease out how the other person felt about the situation. How did you feel about that? Was that good or bad? Did that make you angry?

    Asking questions like these shows the other person that you've been listening and paying attention, that you are trying to understand and that what he/she is saying is important to you. Secondly, doing this helps you to get a feel for the situation and what it would be like to be in it. And thirdly, it helps the other person process and work through the experience for, just as you're starting to see it through his/her eyes, they are starting to see it through your eyes as the slightly more objective third party.

  3. Be sensitive as you question. It may not be appropriate to ask some of the questions I outlined above. You'll have to make a judgement call, depending on the individual and your relationship to them. Or you'll just have to tread very, very carefully. Remember the goal is to love the other person, and it may not be loving to probe too much.

  4. Let the person finish saying what they're saying. Don't be in such a hurry to interrupt. I think most people don't notice they're doing this. I notice because I've been conditioned not to speak when other people are speaking, so if someone interrupts me, I tend to fall silent because it's polite and because I think it means the other person doesn't want to hear what I have to say. Like I said, I'm naturally shy, so perhaps that's part of it. If you're someone who tends to pipe up before the other person has finished speaking, maybe you need to practise some restraint and self-control. It's not about you and your need to voice whatever thought is going through your head. Take the time to listen to the other person. Shut up.

  5. Feedback to the person as they're talking to you. You don't have to parrot everything they say; just make them feel like you've been listening and that you understand: “So you said you've had problems with him before ...”, “It's been like this for a while, hasn't it”, “So what you're saying is ...”, etc. On that last one, it's important you use their words and not yours because you may, wittingly or unwittingly, insert your own interpretation on what they said, which may not have actually been what they said. If you do that, it signals to them that you haven't been listening very carefully at all.

  6. As part of feeding back to them, affirm their feelings. Feelings are neither right nor wrong; they have no moral quality. They just are. As I've said in other places on this blog, they are signposts pointing you to something. You just have to work out what they're telling you about yourself and your relationships with other people. Never make another person feel bad about what they feel.

    So with Haydn's anger, the Christians he spoke to were wary of his anger because they understand that it's easy for our anger to become tainted with human sinfulness, thus leading to even more sinfulness as we give in to the urge to seek revenge, or we redirect our anger so that it comes out in inappropriate ways at inappropriate people. But what they didn't recognise is that Haydn's anger stems from a profound sadness at having a father who did not love him or understand him. The anger pointed to the sadness. The anger in itself wasn't a “bad” thing; it's what Haydn did with it that was the problem. Good listeners need to look at what the anger or sadness is pointing to, and understand where it's coming from.

  7. Help them to understand right and wrong in their situation. You may think this is bleedingly obvious, but strangely it's not. It's hard when you've grown up in a bad situation to look at it from the outside. To take Haydn's example again, his father's treatment of him was all he knew. Perhaps he sensed from watching other boys with their fathers that the way his father treated him was not right. However, he did have family members who seemed to think he “deserved” what he got, and their attitudes probably reinforced the idea that this was normal and that there was something wrong with him. If something is morally wrong in a person's situation, you need to say so—for example, it's wrong for fathers to verbally abuse their sons, friends to lie to friends and employers to cheat their employees of their pay. Say, “That's horrible!” or “That's very sad” or “I'm so sorry that happened to you. That must have felt awful”, etc. Doing this can actually be very helpful for that person because it enables them to see things objectively—to see that they're not overreacting or taking things out of proportion (if they're not), but rather the things they feel actually do have a reason behind them.

    Sometimes, of course, the situation is not clear cut. If that's the case, it's worth doing a bit of thinking together, seeking to apply the truths of the Bible to what you know about the specific circumstances. (Yeah, I know this is very vague language; it's hard when you're talking in hypotheticals ...)

  8. Wait for them to ask for advice, or if you have some advice to give, give it when they're ready to hear it. I talked earlier about not jumping straight to Mr Fixit. If you do, you tend to come across as saying, “You have a problem and your problem is bugging me. You need to fix it NOW otherwise you'll be in trouble—and not just with me, but with God too.” Take your time to get there. You may have some good advice to give, but as I've said earlier, the person you're talking to may not be particularly after advice; they may just want a friend to lean on—a sympathetic ear—someone who understands them. They may need that more than your advice at the moment.

    If you do give someone advice, make sure it's helpful and achievable. In a way, “helpful” is a bit of a subjective thing because what may seem helpful to you may not be very helpful to the other person. Pastors and other Christian friends told Haydn just to “forgive and forget”; they didn't tell him how. They didn't tell him how to “process the pain to lead to forgiveness”. It makes me wonder sometimes whether Christians like these people have ever had to practise hard forgiveness. If they have, they'd know how hard it is—how it is a process—how you do actually have to work through the situation and all your emotions surrounding the situation before you can get to the place where you can say without anger, without malice and without a shred of desire for retribution “I forgive you for what you did to me”. Remember, forgiveness comes at a cost to the forgiver, and that cost is painful.

    Furthermore, not all your suggestions and advice may be practical. People's lives are very complicated, and often a lot of advice is more like a bandaid for cancer than an actual cure. I remember one Christian friend telling me and Ben that, from what he had seen, our marriage was in trouble. But his solution (which went along the lines of “spend more time together”) did nothing to address the problems we were having at the time. He completely misunderstood our situation because he did not take the time to listen to us and our needs.

Okay, that's all I had to say on the subject (well, for now, anyway ...) I hope you've had the experience of being listened to and understood. If you have, I'm sure you know how lovely it is—how much it makes you feel valued and cared for. Take that experience and those feelings, and use them to motivate you to listen to others—really listen—and in so doing, love your neighbour, whether stranger, friend or family member.

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Other comments

You make a good point about asking questions. One of the big mistakes I used to make in communicating when I was younger was asking too many questions too soon and interrupting the speaker in order to ask my questions. (I still slip up in this way if I’m not being mindful).

I did it because I knew that asking questions was important, and that’s how I showed I was “listening” and interested (even though I couldn’t be listening since I was interrupting with questions! I had misapplied and misunderstood the concept). A brother in Christ helpfully pointed out (probably out of annoyance!) that I should let the speaker speak rather than firing questions at them.

Your point Let the person finish saying what they’re saying is very important. I would add, don’t be afraid of awkward pauses or silences. When you let other people speak, they may answer your questions before you’ve asked it.

To sum up, ask your questions after the person has finished saying what they’re saying, and the way you ask is very important too! People used to point out I had a “Twenty Questions” approach! Not good raspberry

And people should run seminars on how to listen at church, camps, conferences and stuff. Should be part of MTS training.

I almost thought that you would be writing about Eirch Fromm’s work. Alright, he was not a Christian, but he did see the benefit in those teachings.

I wanted to express my gratitude for the post. Generally, we recognize that the core of Jesus’ teachings is love, so it is easy to bring up the route of forgiveness when speaking to others. I think it is a problem that we do not stop to consider before speaking, not of ignorance. Part of listening is understanding, so the points you make do work towards the end of being a more positive influence with the offering to help.

Good post, Karen. These kinds of issues (such as listening and showing an interest) seem like minor issues, but I think they’re some of the core problems that we face in Christianity today.

I’m more and more realising that many churches can be a bunch of people who are theologically correct, but have paper-thin relationships. They’re showing the bare minimum of politeness to each other.

And so, it just takes one little issue of difference to crop up - and then people stop talking to one another, someone else leaves a church, etc.

Shouldn’t the real situation be that we have such caring, strong relationships that when an issue comes along, we work through it constructively so as to preserve the relationship?

Yeah, so I think this sort of thing is vitally important, and I hope people pay attention to the post.

And, on a personal note, I always struggle to listen properly, so I can always hear the lesson again . . .

Great post, Karen…

Just want to add one of my own that has always helped me…

How to tell if you are listening well…

If your sitting there, with what you want to say framed in your head, and just waiting for them to stop talking so you can jump in and say it… then your not.  Pauses in conversation, so you can formulate a response are actually often a sign of good listening.

0.02, fwiw.

Posted by Matt A on 21 April, 2009 1:05 AM

Thanks, everyone! Good comments too.

Great post!!
This is something I’ve been thinking through recently. One thing I’ve noticed is that Christians in particular don’t want to face other people’s sadness. They think being Christian means being happy… all the time. Even if it means not being true to your real feelings about something. So they typically react with ’ you should be happy.. Jesus loves you!’ or ‘let me solve your problem for you’. Generally.. neither are helpful or useful.

(Just an aside, my dad used to take notes while he was listening so he could listen, but have the questions to hand later). I’m a Ms Fixit, so I’ve had to learn to ask people if they just want me to listen, or if they want suggestions.

That was a bit me-me-me for a post on listening, sorry. I’m called on to listen more than the other way around.



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