There is nothing more annoying than people not listening to your conversation—you know what it’s like. You have a great story to tell your friend about a trip you went on last holidays. You want to share all the details—only to find they start off, Oh yes. I had a holiday last year too…And before you know it, it’s all about them.
I’m afraid it happens all the time. Don’t start off with your stories of ill health—because you’re sure to hear about their sickness’ details. It’s almost as if they can’t listen for two minutes. There may be a simple reason—are they getting deaf and actually can’t hear you? Probably the real reason is they are too self-absorbed.
In some cases, people are so wrapped-up in their own lives and concerns that they just don’t want to listen to you—or anyone else. With these people, it can be very difficult to get them to listen to you. About the only way is to put the subject in terms of how it will affect them. And that can be tricky—and annoying.
Solving the Communication Problem
I’m talking about listening skills—something we don’t talk a lot about, probably because we’re too busy talking. Have you got the gift of really listening to others? It seems to me that talking can seem far more useful and attractive than listening, and so people will seek to talk rather than listen. When I talk, I am in control, and can steer the conversation any way that I choose. When I talk I am also the centre of attention.
Some years ago I sat in a group of fellow clergy, as psychologist and social researcher Hugh Mackay spoke. It was riveting stuff, and I always try to read what he writes. He is so interesting, and it all makes sense—author of 14 books at last count. One of his bestselling books, first published in 1994, is Why don’t people listen? Solving the Communication Problem. Hugh Mackay maintains that we cling to the idea that what we say is powerful and important, and the only thing that matters. But says who? Your friend or spouse may be totally switched off and not listening. It’s called miscommunications, and each one of us is guilty of not communicating well. And sometimes people switch off and are not at all interested in what we say. Many women say their man does not listen to them.
Many books and articles have been written on how to become a good—or effective—listener. It was TV host Larry King who said: “I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.” What a great principle. There is so much to learn—maybe by carefully listening you’ll learn something valuable. We don’t learn things from what we have to say; we learn from what others have to say. When we listen, we go beyond simply hearing words by giving our attention to what is being said.
The Bible says you and I should be good listeners. James 1:19 says: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Three good things in that—but the first is be quick to hear. Another version says: “Dear brothers, don’t ever forget that it is best to listen much, speak little, and not become angry”.
Jesus Stopped and Listened
You may never realise how much people need you to listen to them—to be an active listener—with care and compassion. When we listen, we invite another person to exist. A boss who pauses at his secretary’s desk to ask her opinion, a mother who switches off the vacuum cleaner to listen to her child, a customer who stops to say How are you? to a sales clerk—each of these is acknowledging someone’s personhood.
Jesus did this often. In the New Testament in Mark 10, he was surrounded by a huge crowd as he left Jericho. Yet when he heard a blind beggar calling out to him, Scripture says, “Jesus stopped.” He called Bartimaeus to himself and listened to him. If you think about it, we actually strengthen each other through good listening. Reading the gospels, one senses that even Jesus sought the encouragement that comes from sharing inner feelings with those who would listen.
Listening helps the speaker clarify his or her thoughts. Dawson Trotman often said, “Thoughts disentangle themselves when they pass over the lips or through the fingertips”—that is, by talking and by writing. As we give people an opportunity to talk, we help them sort out tangled thoughts. Proverbs has a fascinating verse: “The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out.” (Proverbs 20:5) How? By being a careful and caring listener.
Jesus drew people out. For example, he was not in a rush when he initiated dialogue with the woman at the well (John 4:1-42), knowing it would take time for her to shed surface layers of theological questions.