How to Listen Well

It's Simple, but It's Not Easy

listening man -- how to listen well

In my last post I gave you four reasons why you’re probably a bad listener. At the time of this writing that post has had over 40 shares! I promised you I’d follow up with a post on how to listen well. I hope this is helpful.

To listen well, you must…

1. Cultivate presence

Listening is more than hearing, as I explained in my previous post.

Hearing happens on a biological level, but listening, at its best, is a spiritual exercise.

The heart of all authentic spirituality is learning to cultivate presence to God, learning how to truly “be with” God in the present moment. Listening well, then, requires learning how to do this in the presence of a fellow human being.

This is simple, but it’s not easy. To cultivate presence, you must learn to do the following:

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Why You’re Probably a Bad Listener

(Don't Be Offended, It's Normal)

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.

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Why the Race Dialogue in America is Going Nowhere Fast

and What to Do About It

dialogue -- two men arguing
Foreword: This piece speaks of “black America” and “white America.” Someone has recently read the piece and observed that though these two groups are far from monolithic, I write here as though each group has a single point of view. Though I recognize this, and obviously I cannot even speak for all white people, let alone all black people, I can surely elucidate what I think is a big part of the problem among white people. I certainly cannot, and have no right, to claim to capture “black experience,” but as a therapist and pastor, I am trying to latch onto some human universals that transcend race and I hope I will be allowed to do that, despite the inability of language to capture the experience of all people.

America’s Race “Dialogue” Like an Argument Between Spouses

Think of our racial back-and-forth in this country like a discussion between spouses. I realize it’s more complicated because it’s a national dialogue and there are so many competing interests involved, but still, at the core of it, here’s the dialogue.

Wife: I need to talk to you about a serious problem. [mention of said problem]

Husband: But I only do that because [reason for doing what she sees as a problem, filled with all kinds of excuses, and a few valid points that she should probably listen to]

Wife: You’re not hearing me.

Husband: I heard you fine. You’re not hearing me! You said you’re upset about this thing, and I’m telling you why I do that thing that upsets you.

Wife: I heard you, and I feel like you’re saying it’s MY fault.

Husband: Then you didn’t hear me. I’m not saying it’s your fault, I’m just telling you why I do that thing I do. If you’d stop doing that thing that makes me do the other thing, I’d stop doing that thing and there would be no problem.

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How Education Does (and does not) Matter

excellence and education

Someone said to me recently, after reading my bio attached to a syllabus I had prepared, “Do you think we (she’s a professor as well) come across as egotistical with all the stuff we put in our bios? Should we just teach and let it speak for itself?”

My response…

No doubt. There are times I read through my bio on a syllabus and think, “Well look at that. Aren’t I just the crap.” I feel, briefly, like a very special human being.

Two days later I’m taking a workshop taught by someone else, and I read their bio, compare it to my own, and think, “I’m such a piece of garbage compared to them. Why would anyone listen to me.” I feel, usually for a quite a while, like a complete imposter. Soon someone will discover I don’t really know anything and I’ll lose everything I’ve ever worked for.

So of course it’s ego, all of it, who’re we kidding? My sense of self-satisfaction with my own accomplishments, my sense of inferiority to others with superior accomplishments, my fear of my life jig being up because someone finds out I’m a nobody. All of it. What a stupid game it is.

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The Explanation Trap


All three of my jobs — pastor, professor, and therapist — require me to explain things. I explain constantly. Explanation is a critical part of teaching. A teacher who is unwilling to explain will not be very effective.

But explanation, at some point, and often insidiously, crosses over into defensiveness. When I find myself defending my spiritual views/ideas, or defending something I am trying to teach my students, or defending something I said to a client, I am probably already moving away from helping the person I’m talking to. That is why I limit how much debate I will even engage in here on this blog. Even though I sometimes want to defend myself, it’s just almost never very helpful.

There’s a myth here that I have believed for years, without realizing it.

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