Everybody thinks that they’re a good listener. The problem is that very few of us actually are.
And that’s because being a good listener isn’t that easy. It’s hard work! It takes skill and practice over the course of years to become a truly good listener. We have to be willing to put effort into it.
When I’m being disciplined, I can be a very good listener. (Or so I think I’ve been told. I don’t know. I can’t remember exactly what they said.)
It’s really easy to lose focus and slip into bad listening habits. I do it all the time. Just ask my wife.
But it’s so important that we strive to become better listeners. When we listen to people well, what we communicate is that they’re important. They matter. Their thoughts, opinions, and emotions matter. They are loved.
We certainly believe these things to be true about other people created in the image of God. By improving our listening skills, we’re able to show them that that’s how we feel.
Below are some helpful practices as you seek to become a better listener. As I share them with you, I’m aware that I need to be reminded of them myself.
Here are 6 ways to become a better listener.
1. Listen with your body.
Body language is important when you want to make someone feel heard. The way we position our bodies communicates whether we’re fully engaged or not. And sometimes positioning our body in certain ways actually facilitates our ability to fully engage in a conversation.
When someone is reaching out for connection or has something to say that’s important to them, communicate that it’s important to you as well by squaring your shoulders with theirs. Lean in to listen. Nod when appropriate to show that you’re with them. Maintain comfortable eye contact (without being overly intense or creepy, obvy).
When you listen with your body, it goes a long way toward making another person feel heard.
2. Put down your phone, turn off the TV, close your laptop.
When it comes to talking to people while distracted by technology, I am THE worst. I find that I struggle more with this when I’m tired and my ability to maintain focus has diminished. In those moments, I need to be better about disciplining myself to keep my eyes away from screens when someone is talking to me.
In a world of distraction, we need to cultivate the ability to live in the moment. And living in the moment doesn’t necessarily entail skydiving, extreme sports, or other impulsive adventures. Living in the moment just means being fully present wherever you are.
Physically present. Emotionally present. Spiritually present.
Bring your whole person to the conversation. Your undivided attention. That means silencing your phone. Respond to that text or email later. Check your social media notifications when your conversation is over. Learn to love the person in front of you more than you love the constant stimulation of your screens.
3. Set aside your agenda.
Too often, conversations are less about talking to one another and more about talking at one another. Just two people taking turns sharing whatever thoughts are in their minds.
It’s like tag team monologuing. The whole time the other person is speaking, you’re just waiting for your turn to talk. This isn’t listening. It’s just talking. If you want to do that, just start your own podcast. I don’t know if anyone will listen to it, but at least you’ll be able to shed the pretense that you’re in a two-way dialogue.
When listening to someone else, you need to be willing to set aside your own agenda. Instead of being more interested in sharing your ideas, develop a curiosity for what other people think. Ask good follow up questions. Take an interest in the other person.
Be willing to choose understanding over being understood. This is what great listeners do.
4. Suspend judgment and remain open.
One of the quickest ways to shut someone down is to overreact, act judgmentally, or even offer your opinion before you have completely heard a person out.
Many times, people will start a conversation uncertain as to whether you are a safe person to share their heart with. When you react too quickly, what you communicate is that you are in fact not safe. And that keeps others from sharing important personal information with you again in the future.
People want to be heard, not judged. And they want to know that you understand where they’re coming from before they can be open to receiving helpful advice.
As a pastor, I’ve spoken to many people over the years who have very similar problems to each other. And many of these similar problems seem to have similar solutions, at least when we think about them on a very superficial level. I can be tempted to jump to the conclusion that I know the answer to a person’s problem before I’ve listened fully to what they’re going through.
But every situation is unique. Every person is unique. I don’t know everything–especially if I haven’t listened first. So I can’t offer advice prematurely.
We need to hear the full story before we have the ability to effectively rebuke or instruct.
5. Listen to the emotions behind the words.
Words are important. But sometimes you have to look past the words and see the emotion behind them. When someone is speaking to you, they’re trying to connect.
When someone shares about a difficult situation in their family, they’re looking for someone to connect with them in the place where they’re hurting. And when they share some good news about something that happened to them at work, they’re looking for someone to connect with them in their place of joy.
We need to be willing to connect with people wherever they find themselves.
Paul puts is this way.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15)
In order to meet people in the places where they’re rejoicing or weeping, we need to be listening to the emotions behind their words. People rarely share about an event or situation in their life if there’s no emotion attached to it.
The reason it was on their mind, and the reason they thought it was worth sharing, is because it has some kind of meaning to them. Look to surface that meaning and connect with it.
6. Ask clarifying questions.
Seeking clarity is such an important part of being a good listener. When you confirm that you understand what a person is saying, where they’re coming from, the emotion behind it, and why it’s important to them, you make them feel known and loved.
When speaking to someone, I often find it helpful to use summarizing statements to make sure I understand what they’re intending to communicate. I’ll say something like, “I imagine that makes you feel ____.” Or, “It seems like you’re saying ____. Am I understanding that correctly?”
This gives an opportunity for the person to respond, sometimes by affirming my summary. But other times, they’ll say something like, “Not exactly. It’s more like ____.” This care for clarity fosters a deeper connection and a sense of understanding.
Always be willing to ask more questions and give less answers. Try to dig deeper. Have a heart to fully know the other person and to love them just the way they are.
To listen is to love.
At the heart of listening is love. It’s seeking to treat someone else as more important than yourself (Phil. 2:3). Listening is very much a Jesus thing.
God listens to you perfectly, because he loves you perfectly. And though we listen imperfectly because we love incompletely, may we always strive to love people more truly by listening to them more wholeheartedly.