I think I have always understood the importance of listening. My dad once told me that we have two ears and one mouth, thus we should listen twice as much as we talk. He had some other interesting sayings too, such as, “its better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool rather than open it and remove all doubt.” Obviously, these weren’t original thoughts, but I thought he was the smartest person in the whole world. After all, he was my Dad. But, seriously, he did impress upon me the importance of listening as a learning tool and as a way of showing respect.
Growing up an only child and being really close to my dad, I was often in the company of grown-ups. My dad took me with him virtually every where he went. His name was Don and his friends called me “little Don” rather than Larry because we were so much alike. Being often in the company of adults, I learned early to listen. In fact, I rather enjoyed listening to adults as a child. It is amazing the things one can learn as a child just by listening to adults. Not that I didn’t enjoy being with my own friends, but there was something special about being the only child in the company of grown men. It made me feel important in some way, as if I was privy to information other children might not be. Thus, I learned to listen to the people around me. I am quite certain that the emphasis my dad placed on listening coupled with my privileged exposure to adult company early in childhood helped me to form good listening skills that have stayed with me throughout my life. I think most people would agree that listening is an important quality in any kind of relationship. Yet, if we analyze the issues involving problem marriages today, we would find a breakdown in communication in most cases to be the central contributing factor.
Several years ago, as I attended Columbia International University, Michael Card visited the campus as a speaker and worship leader. He told the story of how his father, a very busy medical doctor, never really spent much time with him. He told how he used to crave the presence of his father so much that when he would be in his study with the door closed, Michael would stick his fingers underneath the door and wiggle them to get his father’s attention. And then he said something that made me realize how right my own father had been in stressing the importance of listening. He said that you could always tell if someone really loved you by how much they listened to you. I had always thought of listening as being important primarily to the listener with a secondary effect of demonstrating respect to others. I suddenly realized the value of listening as being far more powerful in the lives of those who need to be heard. No wonder marriages have such devastating problems when communication breaks down. If the intensity to which we listen to others is proportional to the love we have for them, then that certainly explains why wives or husbands feel so rejected when they aren’t heard. This thought brings to my mind another important question. If we understand how important it is for us to be heard by those we love, and obviously we do by the way we react when we aren’t heard, why then do we so often hurt the people we love by not intently listening to them? How do we not purposely become good listeners?
I ask these questions of myself semi-rhetorically in the hopes that I become more purposely driven to being a truly good listener, not just to those I love but to everyone whom my life crosses paths. Jesus did command us to love others as ourselves. In fact he placed such importance on this command as to say that it is second only to loving God. I do not believe this command to be symbolic, but in reality, we as Christians should put others’ needs above our own. The first step in loving others as ourselves is listening to them. Too often, I am far too concerned with my own matters and I do not notice opportunities to connect with people through listening to them. I am often more concerned with being heard than hearing. I want someone to hear my ideas and rave about how intelligent they are. I want someone to say how much they appreciate what I said. I want someone to notice how important I am to their well being. I want to be the heroin, the rescuer, the one with the answers. I want to be noticed for my ability to sit and listen to someone and then, using all of my wisdom, guide them in the way they should go so they can thank me for being such a good listener. I want to be noticed for my willingness to sacrifice my valuable time to listen to others, therefore being in compliance with Jesus’ commandment. Isn’t that what Jesus meant when he said to love others as ourselves.
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, this is not at all what Jesus meant when He gave us this command. Let me take some time to explain why I believe that listening is one of the more important things we do as Christians and why it so relates to Jesus’ command to love others as ourselves. When Jesus was asked by a Pharisaic teacher attempting to trick him what the greatest commandment was, Jesus replied with two commands. Both are relational. The first concerns our relationship with God, the second concerns our relationship with other people. Moreover, both of these commands relate to a heart condition, or attitude, rather than specific responsibilities that we could legalistically apply which is what the Pharisees were looking for. The second command, to love others as ourselves, can only be accomplished after we take care of the first command, to love God with all our hearts, minds, and soul. When we take care of the first command and develop an intimate relationship with God, we get our minds off of ourselves and begin to see others as God sees them. This helps to prevent the self-seeking goals I described in the previous paragraph. As Christians, and especially as Christian Counselors, we must realize that these two commands given by Jesus are not some lofty, unattainable ideals that we can never reach. These are actual commands given by Jesus that are at the very heart of Christianity and they are meant for us to literally obey. While we will never reach perfection in this life with either of the two commands, it is possible for us to allow God to conform us in such a way as to legitimately incorporate these two heart attitudes fully into our operational lives. Listening to God and listening to others is something that as Christians, we must be intentional about doing. It is our first expression of love. Listening is the single most important thing we can do initially. It communicates empathy, concern, care, and genuine Christian love. Listening to someone gives them immediate worth, respect, and a certain amount of dignity. It makes a person feel important, and we are all important.
From a therapeutic standpoint, empathic listening is much more than a desirable quality. Simply stated, it is essential. If, as research has shown, that the most important factor in therapeutic healing is the therapeutic relationship rather than theoretical orientation, then building a strong therapeutic relationship must be the first priority. This should not be surprising as Christians, because as I have already stated, life itself is all about relationship. And, if we could view “listening” as a front line tool in building a relationship, then obviously the importance of empathic listening is understood.
From a practical perspective, a book titled “The Lost Art of Listening” (Nichols) is a thoroughly detailed discussion of the need and longing we have to be heard, the subtle ways in which we both misunderstand what is being communicated and miscommunicate our own thoughts and feelings, ways in which we can improve our own listening and communication skills, and the context within which listening and communicating are so important. Nichols’ perspectives on how communication breaks down are valuable indeed, especially in the context of building long-term relationships, particularly those of the romantic kind. From a therapeutic standpoint, if we practice any form of family therapy dealing with marital problems, understanding communication breakdown and how it directly contributes to the problems at hand will be vital in being able to understand and effectively communicate any helpful insights.
From a more personal standpoint, “The Lost Art of Listening” has illuminated areas in my life where I have failed miserably in the past. For example, how my own emotions have caused me to react defensively in situations where things would have been much better served if I had paused to regain control of that elusive Christian responsibility to love God first and others second. At other times I have heard what I wanted to hear rather than what was truly being communicated resulting in unnecessary personal anguish and humiliation. Also, I have realized that at times I have diminished another person’s feelings by trivializing their attempts to be heard. In other words, “get over it, it’s not that big of a deal.” And perhaps one of my greater listening deficiencies is that my need to be right often overrides my calling to love.
I have always thought of myself as a good listener and in many ways I am. But in just as many if not more ways, I need much improvement. My desire to be viewed as an empathic, understanding, loving person could easily become a need. Desiring to please God through loving others is good. But when that desire becomes a need to be recognized by others as possessing these qualities, it then becomes the opposite of what Jesus meant. Keeping this perspective is always a challenge. I believe Jesus was talking about this very issue when he said that whoever loses his life for His sake would find it. Emptying yourself of all self-motives to love others first and trusting God to take care of your own personal needs is the paradox of Christianity. It is the essence of faith.
Reading The Lost Art of Listening has hopefully helped me to become much more intentional about being a good listener. When I look at the principles discussed in this book through the lens of the truth that God has created us as relational beings, that He too is relational, and that each of us has a longing to connect, I am greatly encouraged to vigorously pursue the career that God has called me to. Becoming a good listener is an essential front-line tool in connecting relationally with others, which is precisely what we are called to do as Christians. Apart from loving God, it is the most important thing we can do.