I have been reflecting lately on how important – and how difficult – it is to listen. I am coming to understand how much conflict and misunderstanding is related to a failure to listen well, and I want to become a better listener.
I’ve been blessed to know many people who were good listeners. What makes them good listeners? Some observations:
1) Good listeners consider a person’s statements in relation to their presuppositions (as much as possible). They are willing to ask the question “how does this make sense to them?” and genuinely seek an answer to that question in evaluating another person’s opinion.
2) Good listeners are not hasty in making judgments. They are willing to think about something for a while. They don’t have to categorize everyone and everything immediately. “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).
3) Good listeners pay careful attention to words. They don’t assume that an idea they are hearing is identical to an idea they are already familiar with simply because it has similarities. They respect the complexity of reality and are willing to make fine distinctions and treat each person, each statement, each idea on its own terms.
4) Good listeners ask questions. Not to embarrass or attack, but to clarify and distill.
5) Good listeners are not lazy. They work hard to understand. They exert energy in listening. For example, other people can usually tell that they are listening from their body posture and nonverbal communication.
6) Good listeners don’t feel threatened by not controlling the conversation. They are comfortable with silence. They give the speaker unthreatened, unhurried space in which to operate while communicating.
7) Good listeners understand that everyone has different communication styles, and adjust their listening to correspond to the speaker’s communication style. For example, if the speaker is shy, they draw the person out more. If they are talkative, they interject more. Etc. They don’t take a “once size fits all” approach to listening.
8) Good listeners interrupt intentionally and gently, rather than habitually and rashly.
9) Good listeners recall their own subjectivity and finitude as a listener. They make evaluations with the humility that corresponds to seeing parts, not the whole. They consider the angle and point of view from which they are listening.
10) Good listeners are willing to listen to something even if its hard to hear. They don’t stop listening as soon as they become offended or turned off by the speaker. They can receive a rebuke.
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.
Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.
A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.
11) Good listeners do not unreasonably question the motives of the speaker. They make a good faith assumption that, all other factors being equal, the speaker is trying to communicate clearly and truthfully.
12) Good listeners don’t equate listening with agreeing. Good listeners understand that careful listening equips you to disagree well, because by listening you understand more clearly what it is that you disagree with.
13) Good listeners are not simply waiting to talk again when someone else is speaking. They actually value the contributions of other people.
14) Good listeners remember that you can learn from anyone. They realize that human subjectivity and fallenness is such that the most learned person can still learn from a little child.
15) Good listeners love people. They understand that listening is connected to every other aspect of relationships. The understand that there is simply no substitute for genuine affection for other people.
“The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17).
16) Good listeners pay attention to nonverbal communication without discounting verbal communication. They pay attention to the fact that they are paying attention to both nonverbal communication and verbal communication.
17) Good listeners are willing to speak. They don’t equate listening with silence. They understand that the speaker may need them to communicate in order to further the conversation.
18) Good listeners understand that every act of communication takes place in a context or setting. They consider the way the context of a communication event shapes the meaning. For example, they understand social dynamics and the way different situations call for different kinds of listening.
19) Good listeners are willing to stop listening to something that is perverse, wicked, or dangerously foolish. They understand that in a fallen world there are some things that are so evil or foolish that they should not even be listened to. They know when to draw the line. They use common sense.
20) Good listeners understand how important listening is to a relationship. They don’t assume or underestimate the value of listening; they value and seek to cultivate good listening skills.