If you asked me, “How did you know that your parents loved you?” I would answer immediately, “Because they listened to me.” As a child, I was quite a talker. My grandfather called me MotorMouth. Once at dinner, my grandmother gave me a stack of dimes; if I wanted to contribute to the conversation, I had to surrender a dime. I got the point. But my parents gave me the gift of deep listening—the experience of being deeply known and accepted, a safe place to think things through and figure things out.
Few things are as loving or as compassionate as deep listening. Listening is so much more than politeness. When we listen deeply, we are not just quiet, patiently waiting for our turn to talk. We are doing something very profound. The good news is that listening is a gift that all of us can give.
Deep listening is the ability to pay attention to the thoughts and feelings of another. It requires we calmly suspend our initial reactions and judgments in favor of hearing the other person. When we listen deeply, we listen not only to the words that are used but also to the meanings that are behind those words—we listen to what is spoken and to what is unspoken.
When we listen deeply, we are conveying respect and care all at once. We are saying, “I care enough about you to hear what you have to say, to know how you see things. I respect you enough to believe that you may see something I don’t see.”
However, we don’t typically listen very well. Instead, we prefer to talk. On TV, political pundits shout over each other. At church, we ask, “How are you?” but don’t hear the answer. I recently mentioned a health problem to a friend. She then spent the next 45 minutes talking about another friend of hers with the same problem. I know that I’ve done the same thing to others.
Research shows that we will typically listen to another person for three to nine seconds before we start making assumptions about what they are saying and formulating a response in our heads. We tend to listen from a perspective asking, “Is this right or wrong? Do I agree or disagree?” But deep listening sets those questions aside in favor of others: “Do I really understand what this person is saying? Can I see this the way they do?”
Listening to understand is one of the best ways we obey Jesus’ teaching to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Think about it this way: I already know what I think and how I see things. I love another person as I love myself when I am just as interested in hearing what they think and how they see things. Listening is a way to climb into another person’s head and see the world through their eyes. I cannot do that if I’m busy judging or formulating my rebuttal.
When I listen from the “right/wrong, agree/disagree” perspective, I am blinded to some of what God wants to do in my life. I am closing off the possibility that the Holy Spirit might give me new insight or understanding. Also, a combative perspective communicates that I don’t care about the other person's perspective. The cost of poor listening is high.
However, there are two skills we can intentionally develop to make us better listeners: active reflection and inquiry.
Active reflection happens when we reflect back to a person what we think we heard them say. We clarify both their words and meaning before we proceed with the conversation.
Inquiry is the skill of asking questions to draw out meaning to enhance understanding. The best listeners are ones who ask the right questions. They help people say what they were previously unable or unwilling to put into words.
I often need wise questions to help draw out my thoughts. Several years ago, my husband and I moved to a different city where I was unable to find a job. Up to that point, I had always joined the staff of an established ministry. This time, though, I was starting to think about going out on my own.
About halfway through one particularly whiny conversation, my friend let a long silence form then quietly asked me, “What are you afraid of?” I rattled off a few easy answers, such as not being able to pay the bills and not knowing if I would enjoy working on my own. She let the silence linger a little while longer and asked again, “What are you afraid of?”
Suddenly, I was aware of a rush of dread and could name the fear of failure that was keeping me stuck in dithering and indecision. Then, from what seemed like nowhere, I heard myself say, “I guess I have two choices: I can settle, or I can risk.” Instantly, I knew which choice I wanted to make. My friend had given me the gift of inquiry.
How to give the gift of deep listening
Reflect on the idea that deep listening is a way that you can love others as you love yourself. Evaluate yourself with these questions:
- How often do I invest in loving others by listening to see things from their point of view?
- How often do people leave a conversation with me feeling cared for and respected?
- Does the way I listen convey care and respect?
Now, test your impressions in a real-life setting. Pay close attention to your approach in the next three conversations, and reflect on these questions:
- Did I talk too much or interrupt?
- Did I listen to understand or immediately interject my own opinion?
- Did I reflect my listening to the other person in a way that helped them to feel understood?
- Did I ask questions that helped to deepen the conversation