Guest Post: On Listening
At church we talk a lot about developing ourselves spiritually, but we don’t often talk about being better listeners. The church teaches that we have a Heavenly Mother and Father and, though we don’t know all the specific ways they spend their energy, we are taught that they spend a lot of energy being available to us, always ready to listen. (This is taught explicitly about God the Father, implicitly about God the Mother.) I think that’s significant. And I think it reflects godliness when we make concerted efforts in our own lives to listen to each other.
I chose this topic because I care about listening and connecting and understanding. But I’m often worse at it with the people I love the most.
The truth is good listening is hard to do: it requires giving up time and control. It asks us to be vulnerable enough to say, “I don’t fully understand but I want to.” It requires focusing on the other person. But as human beings we often only listen to confirm our biases, or to find ways to feel superior, or only until it’s our turn to speak. In an argument, we might listen in order to build a better case in our defense.
It’s hard to listen when our personal experience is different from the person we’re talking to. It’s hard to listen when our cultural, racial, or economic background is different. It’s hard to listen when we disagree with someone about politics. It’s hard when there’s a generational difference. It’s hard to listen when, say, you feel your dad is being unreasonable, or when your child is resisting you in a way that is triggering, or when your significant other tells you that what you said was hurtful but you didn’t mean to hurt them.
True listening is hard because listening is active, not passive. It requires emotional and mental labor. It demands focus and investment to contemplate what someone else is saying with a completely fresh view. It’s a form of work that is meaningful only if we’re able to leave our mental space of familiarity and self-assurance and be willing to be guided by someone else to expand our current thinking.
Authentic listening is mutually beneficial, a kind of magic where the listener is able to receive and give at the same time. For example, by truly listening the listener gives love, validation, acceptance, respect, and a sense of equality. At the same time, the listener might receive deeper understanding, fresh viewpoints, and expanded empathy. The listener might even become more patient and tolerant.
Perhaps most important, listening is fundamentally about connection—a way to connect deeply with someone else. I think this kind of connection is at the core of the gospel and our very purpose on earth. We yearn to be linked. We yearn for intimate connection. In order to achieve that connection, we need to listen every bit as much as we need to be listened to.
I’ve got a long way to go personally in improving my listening, but here are some ways I’ve been thinking about how to do so:
- Set aside baggage & slow down. Set aside strong emotional reactions, avoid acting on impulses to have an answer, or to be “right” or “better than” the speaker. Let go of defensiveness and pride. It’s hard, even scary, to do these things but in the end it’s a way of saying, “I believe more in the power of connecting and understanding than in my desire for control.”
- Assume you don’t fully understand. Proverbs 1:5 says, “A wise man will hear and will increase learning.” Implicit in the wise man here is the idea that there’s always more to learn. The wise man is wise because he hears and increases learning. Integral to good listening then is the idea of recognizing we don’t yet fully understand—much like a potter who breaks down hardened clay into powder with the hope of reconstituting it into fresh, wet clay and reshaping it into something better.
- Ask follow up questions. For example, “How did that make you feel? Why do you think that is? What do you mean when you say X? How long have you felt like this? What do you think that means?” Sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “I’m really glad you shared that. I”d love to more about that if you’re comfortable sharing.”
- Restate what you’ve heard in your own words. Start with something like, “If I heard you right you’re saying . . .” Repeat the other person’s thoughts and feelings. If they didn’t state how they’re feeling, try asking them. And if they don’t have the words to express their feelings, try imagining how they might feel and asking them if you guessed right. Being able to reflect back a full understanding of what the speaker said is key to connection.
- Show that what you’ve heard and understood has changed you. Over time, show the speaker over time that what they shared with you has changed the way you think, speak, and/or act. This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with their perspective or opinions. However, real listening should affect us. We connect when we are willing to show how we are moved by each other.
If we can be better listeners we will connect more deeply. We will grow love—the love we give and the love we feel. By listening we can expand and link and become more godly. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
*This post was originally written for a talk in an LDS sacrament meeting. It presupposes that the listener is in an emotionally safe environment which is devoid of abuse of any kind.