In our last article, “Slow to Speak: How Listening Enhances Relationship,” we addressed the importance of listening and its potential barriers. This time around, we are going to look into the heart and hands of listening (the mechanics).
The Mechanics of Listening
You might be saying, “Yeah, I want to be a good listener, but how?” There are plenty of practical things we can do. Let’s take a look! We talked about the idea of “cooling our jets,” which is one way of trying to defuse a potentially poor situation, but there are other mechanics of listening that we can use. For instance, one of my personal favorites is the use of summarizing. Summarizing is a means of tracking with a person’s intended message. By summarizing chunks of a person’s message, we can keep ourselves in alignment with what they are intending for us to understand. If we were writing a book report, it would be comparable to summarizing each paragraph with a sentence.
I also recommend exploring more and encouraging a person’s speaking. Often, people are accustomed to being cutoff and details may be kept out for brevity. We are not looking for brevity, we are looking for understanding. Understanding can sometimes take five minutes and at other times fifty. It does not matter how long, so long as the person giving the message is given a cue to continue speaking. I try to use such phrases as, “Tell me more,” or non-verbal cues of nodding and eye contact. In addition to nodding and eye contact, other body language can communicate that you are wanting to listen or not. I recommend reading from The Definitive Book of Body Language to pick up on some of these non-verbal cues.
Along the same lines, when we are seeking to understand another person, I have found that asking for verification of intent is important. I start by saying, “I noticed you were late for our meeting,” (observation) followed by an interpretation: “It makes me think you do not respect me.” Lastly, with the question, “Am I wrong in this?” or “Can you help me to understand what is going on?” This has saved me many times. The person sees the observation, but may have a different take. This gives them freedom to explain without being pinned down. Additionally, if they have wronged you, this is a non-judgmental way to show them the damage that a particular action may have on you.
I think asking questions is not the same as giving advice. If you are asking questions, you will be exploring the person’s story to seek understanding. If you have an agenda, then the questions are merely rhetorical gymnastics meant to make a point. Don’t do it! Not everyone wants advice, nor do they want it early on. If you have a strong inclination to give advice, then ask the person if they want to hear it. Give them the option. Many times, if you have spent the time listening honestly to their story, they will be glad to accept it, but if they are unwilling to hear your advice then respect their request.
There is a technique called mirroring, which is you sharing something of similar experience. This can be a great tool for showing empathy. A word of caution: it may be seen as a version of one-upping. Be sure to use mirroring with discernment.
Lastly, we need to refill our energy levels. We are finite human beings. Sometimes, certain conversations require a great deal of energy. If you expect to end every conversation that you start, then you are in for it! Reminding myself of my finitude has helped me in two ways: to have boundaries and to have energy. The boundaries help me when someone else is relying too much on me in conversation. All people, on some occasions, can be over-bearing (some more than others). With regard to having energy, I sometimes take time away from a difficult conversation whether that is before the conversation or at incremental points during the conversation. Why? —Because if I do not have any gas in the tank, I will not be able to give focus and attention. Sometimes, it is only my pride that thinks I can muscle through it. But me pretending to be Superman is only going to get us into super trouble. To make a note on this: supposedly, true focus in listening can only occur for about 25 minutes. Therefore, use your gas tank wisely and refill often!
There are a number of habits that hinder communication. I have found myself guilty of most of them at various points. Read them and see the ones with which you can identify (adapted from Demmitt):
1. The Interrogator asks questions instead of letting the person share. This person controls the conversation rather than letting it go where the other person wants it to go.
2. The Cheerleader tries to make the person feel better without allowing them to admit wrong or have pain. They do this by making excuses for them and using ‘happy talk.’
3. The Distracted person does not give full attention but is distracted by devices, surrounding or their own internal occurrences.
4. The Topper follows whatever is shared with a personal story that ‘tops’ it. The phrase, “Oh, that’s nothing compared to what happened to me…” conveys this issue.
5. The Egocentric always turns conversations to them. Whatever the issue, they make themselves the topic to be discussed.
6. The Judge evaluates what the talker shares: “that was… wrong/dumb/etc.”
7. The Emotional Evader avoids emotional conversation by changing the subject, leaving or cracking a joke.
8. The Digger brings up things from the past, reminding the talker of past failure.
9. The Dumper does not wait for permission or the appropriate time to bring things up, but instead just unloads those issues whenever and however they feel.
10. The Fixer gives advice to fix the problem rather than listening or waiting until the person is ready to receive it.
11. The Extremist generalizes items of conversation as all good or all bad which is displayed in such phrases including the words “always” or “never.”
The Power Behind the Mechanics—Identity
It is fairly easy for me to listen to a person about their day—even if they are long-winded. My personal abilities disappear as soon as the subject of their speaking is me. I get defensive. I know that some people change the subject, go silent or literally leave the room, but for me, I tend to fight back. It has been the grace of Christ that has allowed me to use my summarizing skills to sit there without a fight or flight response. Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches, apart from me you can bear no good fruit.” (John 15:5) It is in our access to Jesus’ love when listening to others, that makes this possible for us to listen. I am not suggesting that we can use Jesus as if he were a tool. That would be a foolish proposition. No, I am suggesting that we know Jesus’ love from talking with Him, to having Him listen, and hearing Him speak back in affirmation and direction. How exactly does it all work? I’m not really sure. However, I have grown in love toward those who I used to hate. I have been able to listen and give loving responses to those who are attacking my character. And in the end, the glory goes to the Lord Jesus. Therefore, if you have not come to a conclusion about the reality or the relationship you can have with Jesus, now might be a good time to start down that path. Do it, not to become a good listener, do it because in the end, all this talk about listening points to a good God who listens to His people.
As God has listened to me and taken care of me well, I want to emulate His character toward you. As my audience, I want to hear from you. I want to know your requests. I want to hear your frustration, your emotion, your doubts and your arguments. While some of your comments may have potential to question my work, don’t sweat it. I know Christ’s grace in my heart and want to hear your heart as it is. So, message me, call me, email me…let me know!
© Colin Barrrett, 2014
Resources for Listening Articles:
· Covey, Stephen M. R. “The Speed of Trust”
· Covey, Stephen R. “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”
· Demmitt, Dallas and Nancy, “Can You Hear Me Now?”
· English Standard Bible
· Fuder, John, “Heart for the Community” Chapter: New Song Church
· Goleman, Daniel Authors@Google (YouTube)
· Pease, Barbara and Allan, “The Definitive Book of Body Language”
· Treasure, Julian, “5 ways to listen better” (TEDTalk)