What is Listening?
When I talk about “listening,” I do not mean passively allowing speech to enter your ear canal so that you can respond to it according to whether or not you agree, or with your own stories and perspectives. That’s just hearing, and hearing is biological.
But listening is a human act. Listening is hard work. Listening is the work of being fully present, fully attentive, to the person who is speaking. You can hear someone while you surf the net on your phone or watch television, but it’s impossible to really listen to them while thus occupied.
Fully listening to someone requires your utmost attention. It requires you to set aside your own agenda, the things you wish to say, the points you wish to make, even — and perhaps especially — when they are valid points, so that you can give your full attention to the person speaking to you.
There is far more than one way to be distracted and it happens more easily in your own mind than on your phone. You can be just as distracted once you put the phone down as you were before, unless you let go, let go, let go, and turn your full and total attention to the speaker. This will invariably involve actually turning your body toward them as well, when they are in your physical presence.
Here are some reasons why you, like most people, probably listen badly.
You’re probably a bad listener because you’re usually more interested in your own life
As a general rule, you are probably more interested in the bagel you ate for breakfast this morning than the difficulty your friend had getting their child ready for school. That’s just how people are. We are more interested in our own lives than anything else. When it comes to listening, you will have your own ideas about what the other person is saying, and you more interested in those ideas than in what is actually being said.
On the surface you might disagree with this. You might be thinking, “No way, I’m way more interested in my friend’s difficulty with their child than with what I had for breakfast.” But admit it, while your friend is telling you about that difficulty, you’re thinking about your bagel and you feel like you can’t wait to tell that story. After all, you think, it’s so amazing!!
This is human, and it’s the reason most of us are bad listeners. Your thoughts are usually on your own life. The thoughts another person’s words stir up in you are just fascinating. In fact if he or she would just stop talking, you could share your thoughts and fix their problem and this whole thing could be over with.
You’re probably a bad listener because you usually just want to give advice
Right? Most of us, up to a certain point in our lives, take for granted the same idea:
Oh what a wonderful world it would be, if only everyone were more like me.
Most people, probably including you, think what others need most when they talk is advice. Sometimes people are seeking advice, and if so, we should try to give them the best advice possible.
But people have a much deeper need when they are talking to you than getting your advice. They want to be really listened to.
They want you to attend to them, to listen so intently that, even if you may not agree with all of their points, you can feel what it’s like to be that person coming from that perspective. This is what psychologist Carl Rogers referred to as empathy. When you achieve empathy with a person who is speaking to you, you have accomplished a monumental task. Most people are not truly, deeply listened to even by those in their own families and by their closest friends. There are exceptions, of course, but it’s generally true.
My first experience with empathy
Many years ago a very wise older man used to travel around our conference/district, and meet with pastors, and listen to them as they shared their fears and concerns. Byron was better at this than almost anyone I have ever known. When you spoke to Byron it felt like prayer, because he listened to you so deeply and intently.
You felt like you were the only person he had ever known, ever even cared about. You felt so safe, you knew you could say absolutely anything, and your words were protected, cherished, and not ever in danger of being misquoted, argued with, or — worst of all — minimized or ignored.
Byron really listened, and therefore he really heard, and when you spoke to him, you felt so understood, so cared for, so valued and validated. Which, by the way — add all those things together and experience them at one time, and it’ll feel to you just like love.
Because it is.
The first time I met with Byron was at the behest of my close ministry partner and friend, Steve Nickles (God rest your soul, sweet friend.). Steve urged me for years to meet with Byron and tried, again and again, to explain this extraordinary experience of being so deeply listened to and heard.
I blew him off for five or six years.
We all need to be listened to in this way, but we’re also scared to death of the vulnerability we know we will feel in those moments, so it’s easy to hold at arm’s length for many years.
I did exactly that, but finally gave in, for reasons I don’t now recall, and made an appointment to meet with Byron.
Several weeks later, we met seated at a picnic table at Covenant Hills Camp. I shared the concern that had caused me to call him, and we talked about it for a while, and as part of that conversation, I casually mentioned that I had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis years earlier. I moved straight into my next point, but Byron stopped me.
“Wait, what? When?”
“December 5, 1990.”
He said, “David, how did you deal with that? That must have been devastating for you and your wife. How old were you?”
“Have you ever worked through that? Have you ever grieved for yourself? I’m an old man, and I’m grieving for you right now, that you had to face something like this at such a young age.”
I went to respond, but there was a catch in my throat.
And still, ten seconds later, that catch.
And still, with another thirty seconds, that same catch. I couldn’t speak.
I stared off into the distance, eyes filling with tears, trying hard to pull it together.
But what I did isn’t the point. The point is what Byron did.
He did nothing.
He sat and looked at me, never taking his eyes off me, which was both horribly uncomfortable and deeply comforting.
He didn’t get antsy or fidget. Best of all, he didn’t tell me to look on the bright side, or pontificate on how it had been long enough that I should have dealt with this by now.
He didn’t tell me to cheer up, look on the bright side, consider how healthy I was in that moment, or crack some joke and change the subject.
He just waited. But best of all, he waited with me.
And I realized I was sitting with the strongest, bravest person I had ever known. A person who wasn’t afraid of my pain. Someone who could walk with me into the darkness and, quietly, remain there while I groped for light.
He didn’t need me to get over it or through it or past it. He was willing to stay there as long as I needed to be there.
That, my friend, is what it feels like to be heard.
It’s the most powerful, intimate, terrifying thing that can ever happen to you.
No one can do listening at this level without having been to the darkest places in their own life.
That’s why most of us are bad listeners.
We’re bad because we’re so caught up with our own lives and thoughts.
We’re bad because we can’t resist giving advice, which is a way of just fixing the situation quickly so we don’t have to be in that darkness anymore.
You’re probably a bad listener because you’re not comfortable with darkness in your own life
Therefore you cannot abide it in the lives of others. Wittingly or not, you’ll try to rush them out of their darkness.
Or avoid letting them get there to begin with.
Or try to convince them it’s not really that bad. Even — perhaps especially — when it really is that bad.
You’re probably a bad listener because you are so reactive
Have you ever said something controversial and begun by asking people to just please listen? How did that work out for you? Did they listen?
Not likely. Most of us cannot just listen, even when we are specifically asked to do so. We’re just too reactive.
That is why the world is so chaotic, and why peace is so fragile. Look no further than Israel and Palestine. Each group is angry and shouts accusations at the other group. Neither group really listens to the other. This is the recipe for impasse that has kept them right where they are for so long.
Everybody wants to put their own point of view out there, like piglets trying so hard to find one of the teats, in primal fear that if they don’t, it’s all over. That’s your reactivity.
“I have to make this point, disagree with that point, or I’ll die. My life, my dignity, my sense of self, depends on it.”
We will never move past impasse either, as long as we are so reactive and unable to truly listen to the one we perceive as “other.”
There are a lot of reasons you’re probably a bad listener, but I’ve covered these in this post.
You’re a bad listener because…
- You’re more interested in your own life
- You usually just want to give advice
- You’re not comfortable with the darkness in your own life
- You’re so reactive
This probably doesn’t feel good to read, but I’m not judging you. As I’ve said, it’s normal to be a bad listener — most people are. In my next post, I’ll show you what it takes to listen well.
Question: When did you feel deeply listened to and understood? Can you describe what that was like?