Learning to Listen

Author, pastor, and spiritual director, Trevor Hudson draws on his own experience of faith and discipleship in South Africa during the difficult era of apartheid in his country between 1980 and 1991. In a section from his book, A Mile in My Shoes: Cultivating Compassion, Trevor offers guidance in Learning to Listen. Trevor Hudson Part 3 of 3

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Practice

Set aside 6-8 minutes to settle in God’s loving presence and slowly read the following excerpt. At the end of the section, Trevor provides ten Yes or No questions. As you answer each one invite the Holy Spirit to highlight any areas or obstacles to your listening that need attention. Choose one area and for the next 8 hours consciously cultivate a listening heart. Offer your intention to God. At the end of your practice spend 8-10 minutes reflecting on what you noticed. How did you experience yourself as a listener? How did others respond?

Learning to Listen

Listening is the second essential component of the pilgrim attitude. Compassion, as we have already seen, lies at the heart of the spiritual journey. We grow toward Christlikeness only as we become more caring. A noncaring Christ-follower is a contradiction in terms. However, we cannot show real concern, especially for those in pain, unless we first take time to listen. We can only love those to whom we genuinely listen. For this reason, if we intend to put our lives alongside those who suffer and reflect to them the compassion of Christ, our presence must always be a listening one. This could be why James, one of the first spiritual mentors in the early church, encouraged his readers to “be quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19).

Christians are not well known for their listening. Some years ago, I had an experience that presses home this observation. My family and I strolled along a Johannesburg street and suddenly found ourselves surrounded by a group of enthusiastic Christians. Armed with tracts and Bibles they stopped us in our tracks to proclaim the facts of the gospel. As they spoke about Jesus and urged us to accept him into our lives, I tried vainly to get a word in. All I wanted to say was, “Folks, we’re on the same side as you,” but they would not give me a chance. Even though they were physically present with us, they failed to communicate the compassionate heart of the Divine Pilgrim. At no stage did they attempt to find out who and where we were before presenting us with the claims of Christ. In their failure to take seriously James’s injunction about listening, their actions contradicted the message of God’s grace and love.

We need not judge this group of zealous Christians. Often our own inability to listen well has made others feel isolated, unaccepted, and unloved. Thankfully, we can all learn to listen better. While a few people seem naturally gifted as listeners, most of us need to develop this vital gateway to compassion. Cultivating a listening life, however, does not occur overnight. Few activities require as much energy, effort, and patience. Involving at least three basic steps, good listening enables us to grow in the compassionate Way, becoming more faithful pilgrims at heart.

  1. Stop talking. If we want to learn to listen we must stop talking. We cannot speak and listen at the same time. Failure to grasp this common-sense reality impedes many from making any significant progress in the listening life. Unless we bridle our tongues, stop our constant chatter, and check our tendencies to interrupt others as they speak, we cannot truly listen to another. Restricting our speech in these ways does not come easily. Deeply ingrained into the tongue are talkative habits that resist determinedly any kind of change. The fact that this member of the body seems to possess a life of its own means that our desire to be listening pilgrims requires that we discipline ourselves firmly. Practicing the silence of not speaking in situations that invite our compassionate presence, begins the listening journey.
  2. Give total attention to the one speaking. Learning to listen involves giving our total attention to the person speaking. Merely being silent does not ensure that we are really listening. We could be dead, asleep, day-dreaming, or totally preoccupied with our own thoughts and feelings. We’ve all experienced speaking to someone whose vacant eyes and faraway look indicate that he or she has not heard a word. By contrast, true listeners concentrate intently upon the speaker’s words, the feelings that accompany the words, and the silences between them. Such concentration communicates nonverbally a genuine and positive interest in what they are hearing. Morton Kelsey captures this dynamic element of the listening process when he writes, “Real listening is being silent with another person or group of persons in an active way.”1
  3. Communicate understanding of what is shared. Good listeners try to communicate their understanding of what persons share with them. They don’t always remain silent. Whenever appropriate they try to clarify what they hear the other person saying. Like any other communication skill, this reflective listening style can be misused and become a mechanical counterfeit of the real thing. Nonetheless, the person speaking will feel listened to if we indicate some grasp of what is being said. During my training for pastoral ministry, one of my tutors would constantly say to me, “Trevor, the most healing gift that you can give to someone in pain is the awareness that you are honestly trying to understand what they are going through, even if you get it wrong.”

Against the background of these basic guidelines I invite you to assess the quality of your current listening ability. Growing in self-awareness about our listening ability often initiates a fresh commitment to become a better listener. Here are ten straightforward yes or no questions to consider. A positive answer to any number of them could challenge you to develop more consciously a listening heart.

  • Am I known as a chatterbox?
  • Do I interrupt others in midsentence?
  • Do I “switch off” when I disagree with what’s being said?
  • Do I complete other people’s sentences?
  • During conversations am I often preoccupied with my own thoughts and feelings?
  • Do I plan my answer while others speak?
  • Do I fear silence in conversations?
  • Do I tend to jump in with my own story and take over instead of listening?
  • Am I often impatient while listening?

Do those closest to me often complain that I don’t listen to them?”

 

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Footnotes
  1. Morton Kelsey, Caring (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1981), 72.
Trevor Hudson, A Mile in my Shoes (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2005) ©2005 by Trevor Hudson, 32-35.
Listen to all parts in this Listening for Change series