“Can I talk to you?” It’s a question I hear regularly, whether formulated into words, or suggested through hurting eyes and drooped shoulders. It’s an easy enough question to answer for most people: “Sure you can talk to me. Fire away, I can still text on my phone, flip through my mail, and make a mental grocery list while you spill your two month’s worth of pent-up problems in my ear.”
Somewhere in the course of a day someone will usually ask, “Do you have a minute?” If your life is anything like mine, your honest answer would probably be a blatant ‘no’ followed by a rundown of your to-do-list. No, I don’t have a minute—which usually turns out to be more like fifteen or thirty—to donate to a bleeding heart or happy soul who wants someone to listen.
Finally, after the subtle hinting and gentle inquiries don’t persuade
me to pause, those longing for a listener express their desire for an opened ear in the simple command, “Just listen to me!”
After the spiel above I know you’re questioning my credentials for offering advice about effective listening. Well, I feel as if I’ve lived my life with a sign posted across my forehead flashing the words “I’ll listen – present all problems, angst or heartaches here.” In general, people will tell me everything; inevitably, I will listen. The truth is, I enjoy listening to people and I do it everyday, but it doesn’t mean that it’s always easy. I’ve done my own share of mental multi-tasking and lackadaisical listening because it’s so easy to hear someone and so hard to listen. The reason that listening is more difficult than hearing is that listening is an act of giving, a ministry that takes time to learn and refine. It is a sacrifice of time, self, and sometimes sanity, but it is also one of the most accessible tools God has given us in order to be burden bearers. There is a vast difference between people who provide their bodily presence in a conversation and others who offer a heart poised to listen. Listening has an entirely different meaning from hearing because listening has absolutely nothing to do with the ears.
Listen with Your Lips
Though the lips and ears are only about three inches apart from one another, they are the most paradoxical members of the entire body. So how do you listen with your lips? When people are talking they are usually longing for your undivided attention rather than your unsolicited advice. A word fitly spoken has its place, but that’s another ministry— one that God did not call me to or equip me for so I won’t write about it here. (The truth is that my most eloquent moments make Porky Pig sound like a silver tongued orator.) I’ve found that closed lips are the best to listen with; one lip pressed tightly against the other allows you to keep your ears wide opened. God gave us two ears and one set of lips for a reason. You think He was trying to tell us something?
Listen with Your Eyes
The greatest indicator of your listening competence isn’t your open ears, but your attentive eyes. When a girlfriend is pouring out her heart, it probably isn’t the best time to be scrutinizing the cute outfit on the woman sitting close by or critiquing the really bad dye job on the woman
walking by. When your eyes wander to anything other than the person
talking, you send the message that you aren’t interested in what she is
saying. Now, don’t be extreme— this isn’t a staring contest. If the person seems to feel uncomfortable with you looking at her, maybe shift your focus down to her arms or the table or floor, but always let her know you’re with her, understanding what she is saying. If God has brought someone along whom we may listen to, we should at least put out the welcome sign by keeping our eyes as tuned in to her message as our ears ought to be.
Listen with Your Memory
I’ve heard it all, let me tell you. But when friends—and yes, complete strangers-- feel compelled to share with me about their rained out paper maché party, their goldfish’s battle with pneumonia, or their nose hair infection, I always try to remember to ask about their problem or issue the next time I see them. It’s the follow-up questions that tell people, ‘I listened; I’ve been thinking about what you told me.’ A great way to remember a friend’s burdens is to constantly pray for her. The blessing comes for you when you ask about their problem the next time you see them and they give a positive report— the goldfish is better, the party’s re-planned, and their nose hairs are healing nicely. All you have to do is smile and wait until their next problems arise.
Listening with Your Heart
Up to now these have been suggestions for an outward display of attention that say more than ‘I’ll listen,’ they say, ‘I care.’ Though those things are important, imperative, we can only become effective listeners by placing others deep enough in our hearts until we care more for their needs than our own.
Have you ever watched a person’s mouth move for five minutes before you zone back in to realize that their words took a quick one-way trip through your ear canal and you start to pray that they don’t ask you for a response? There will always be eleventy billion issues or ideas vying for attention in our minds; this is when we need to close out the things going on around us, shut off your own thoughts, push ourselves aside and just listen with our hearts.
Listen with Your Soul
Caring for others and taking time to listen is much easier when we remember that God remains ever waiting to listen to us. He cares even when we decide not to share our burdens with Him.
Joseph Scriven must have known God to be a good listener when he penned the words
What a friend we have in Jesus.
All our sins and grieves to bear.
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer.
Oh, what peace we often forfeit;
Oh what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer.
At this point you might be wondering, “If God is such a good
listener, why don’t we just point the problem plagued person to Him?
After all, He has more time to listen than we do and certainly has more
resources to help.”
When we search in our souls for ways to show others the care that God reveals, we’ll find that mimicking Him by listening to our prayers and problems.
Listening with our souls means listening with a purpose, bearing
burdens, and pointing people to that ‘what-a-Friend’, the only One who
can truly solve their problems and will always be there to listen.
Look around; there are chances to practice your listening ministry everywhere. But the next time someone wants you to hear them out, try not using your ears and just listen.