It’s probably been a while since you were young, but you might recall a nursery rhyme from years ago. It’s a poem about the merits of measuring our words:
A wise old owl sat in an oak;
The more he saw, the less he spoke;
The less he spoke, the more he heard;
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?
This little poem points out the close connection between being wise and limiting what we say: “The less he spoke, the more he heard.” It picks up on something that God himself has revealed, for Proverbs 10:19 says,
“In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise.” Choosing to speak less certainly allows us to hear more.
Yet it seems that listening is in short supply these days.
People aren’t used to being listened to, because everyone is busy and they don’t have the time to really tune in. Or everyone is eager to air their opinions: we want to be heard, and we want others to see and notice us. The result is that we don’t always listen to what’s going on around us, and we miss out on something essential.
In this article and the next, we’ll see that listening is fundamental to the activity of helping a fellow member in the church. So how can we do it better, so that listening becomes a tool that we can use to bless and
support other people?
The Goal of Listening
As followers of Christ, we want what is for the spiritual good of other people. In particular, we want our fellow congregational members to grow in faith and to enjoy life in the Lord’s service. And while all of us have a measure of the joys and blessings of belonging to Christ, for some of our brothers and sisters, life is undoubtedly very difficult. This might be because of physical illness, broken relationships, anxiety and fear, depression, or circumstances that are disturbed in some other way.
It can be hard to help people for a whole variety of reasons. First, some of the problems that people face are self-inflicted, but a person may not see this—and it’s difficult to help them if they don’t. Second, most behaviour has been learned over a long period of time, which means that it can also take much time to unravel this, to unlearn bad habits and to break from sinful patterns. Third, the challenge of helping someone can be that a person is very reluctant to come for help. They don’t want to talk, perhaps because of embarrassment and shame, or a lack of trust, or because a person simply doesn’t know how to express what is going on. And fourth, we ourselves often don’t know how best to assist someone, limited as we are in insight and resources.
Setting the Stage
In our aim to lovingly care for each other, we should be aware of these barriers and then try to help a person be at ease. It is self-evident that when a person feels a level of comfort with someone, they will be more open to receiving encouragement and guidance, making a confession of sin, even to being admonished. This comfortable atmosphere can be brought about especially through developing a positive relationship with a person—such a relationship is really at the heart of helping them.
We probably all understand this intuitively, that in order to properly assist someone it’s essential to develop a good relationship. Upbuilding conversation flows out of a living connection. But how can we develop this? As you might expect, studies have been done to understand how relationships can be most effective, even in secular settings like hospitals and schools and workplaces. And it’s been shown that relationships grow when the caregiver shows warmth, genuineness, and empathy.
1) Warmth: How to define the warmth between one person and another? Relational warmth implies an attitude of caring and respecting. It’s the evidence of having a sincere concern for someone: how you look at a person, how you respond to them, and how you engage with them. And this warmth isn’t easily cooled by the person’s actions or attitudes, whatever they are.
Think of how Jesus showed this when He met the woman at the well in John 4. Her morals may have been shamefully low, and He certainly didn’t condone her sinful behaviour. Yet in his conversation with her, it was clear that Jesus respected her and treated her as a person of dignity—He was warm towards her.
2) Genuineness: Being genuine means that when we’re helping someone, we should always strive to be open and sincere. We should simply be ourselves, not thinking or feeling one thing and saying something
different because of our desire for their approval or our fear of a bad reaction. We should avoid phoniness or anything that says we’re playing a superior role. Speak honestly, from the heart, as an equal before God.
3) Empathy: This is the ability to share in the feelings of another person. It means being focused on what the person thinks, trying to enter in to how they’re feeling. If you walked in his shoes for a while, how soon would
his hurts, conflicts, or struggles come to the foreground?
For example, what’s it like to live under the black cloud of depression? Or to live with someone who is suffering from this? Or try to imagine how this financial difficulty puts a strain on family life. If we’ve never experienced this kind of thing, we’re going to have to work hard to be empathetic. We have to develop sensitivity to the fact that life can be very hard for people.
You understand that none of these things can be put on like a hat. You don’t just become warm and sincere overnight. But to be effective in building this kind of positive and constructive relationship, the following
points are integral. We should:
- Be interested in people – it should be clear that you want to get to know them, even to know about the difficult parts of their life.
- Show evidence of the fruit of the Spirit – a person should be blessed by being near you, because you show love and kindness, because you’re patient and gentle and good.
- Be willing to reveal things about yourself – you want to help someone in their struggles, but that doesn’t mean you have to put on a front of invincibility and perfection. Find a way to show that you’re a human too.
- Be discrete and trustworthy – they should know that sharing with you is safe.
If you have a positive relationship with a person, the stage is set to do some serious listening. There are three aspects of good listening: attending to a person, hearing them, and then responding to them.
Attending to a person means that you’re present with them, and you’re willing to give them your undivided attention. This is not necessarily a quantity of time, that you must sit with them for two hours. It could be
that long, or it might only be ten minutes—yet in those minutes you want to convey the real sense that you’re focused completely on them. This is the kind of atmosphere where people know they’re being listened to with love and seriousness. And it’s then that they’ll be prepared to speak. So what are a few things we can do when we’re attending to a person?
1) Eye contact: If you’re across from each other, look at the person’s face, eye to eye. Don’t be creepy about it— it’s not a staring contest, but it is a simply way to convey concern and attention.
2) Posture: We use our ears to listen, but our whole body is involved. Interacting with someone, we should be relaxed, rather than tense. People can pick up cues from how we’re folding our arms, or tilting our head, or
planting our feet. Think about posture.
When listening, some people are always nodding their heads; others are constantly adjusting their glasses; still others keep one eye on their phone. We should consider whether our gestures are distracting or if they really
express a listening spirit.
A key thing in attending to someone is time. Listening to someone’s story always takes more time than delivering a monologue. Even so, it doesn’t have to be a lot of time. Even fifteen minutes spent carefully listening and responding can be fruitful. You know, of course, that when you’re really busy with all sorts of other things, fifteen minutes of listening feels like an eternity. In that scenario, we’ll be more interested in getting the answer
we’re hoping for than actually listening.
So we should know this about our state of mind when we’re talking with someone. Recognize that things like fatigue, our undercurrent of impatience, or our preoccupation with the many commitments in our diary can prevent us from giving someone our careful attention. And because we’re not fully focused on them, we likely won’t be able to help them.
In this regard, the wisdom of God’s Word is vital to consider:
“Let everyone be quick to hear and slow to speak” (James 1:19).
The priority that we should give to listening is clear.
Now we’ll look at two more important aspects of listening: hearing and responding.
More than Noise
Pings on our phone, static, sirens, voices, music: there are many things that we hear every day. But we understand that hearing is more than random sounds entering the ear canal and registering somewhere in the brain. Really hearing someone (or something) requires thought and active attention.
In the first article, we saw that when you take the time to develop a positive relationship with someone, you set the stage for serious listening and meaningful helping. One key aspect of active listening is attending carefully to a person, giving them the gift of your time and focused attention. In this article, we’ll look at two more aspects: hearing and responding.
I Hear You
Sometimes when we’re listening to a person speak, we’re busy gathering the facts and history of their life. In conversation we cover basic questions: What do you do? Where did you grow up? What’s your family like? These matters can seem mundane, but they shouldn’t be overlooked. If you’re listening to someone well, the way that a person talks about their parents, their current job, or their plans for the next year, can be very revealing. And “gathering facts” sets the stage for going deeper.
Going deeper is difficult. The human mind and heart are incredibly complex, an intricate web of memories, aspirations, fears, regrets, plans, and character flaws. We all have moments when we must admit that we don’t know why they do things, or why we feel a certain way. And that’s when things are going well, and a person is enjoying a stable life! When a person is unsettled, the symptoms of an unwell heart are wildly diverse.
Consequently, a person who is trying to unpeel the layers and get a glimpse of the truth is faced with a great challenge. It’s a daunting task, seeking to understand people who are aching and broken and despairing. A good listener can be like a detective at times, unearthing clues and putting things together. You should be using your ears, but also your eyes, considering the message communicated by a person’s posture, gestures and facial expression.
And then the words: when a person speaks, we want to try and hear what’s on their heart. The Bible teaches us that the heart is the wellspring of life (Prov 4:23), and that from the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks (Matt 12:34). So we should try to sound out the person’s wellspring.
- Listen for signs of life: what is a person thankful for, scared about, or tired of?
- Listen for what is important to someone: in conversation, what do they keep finding opportunity to mention?
- Follow the feelings: what excites them, and what parts of life are they finding difficult?
- Listen for what a person says, but also for what they leave out: does it sound like they have no problems, no struggles? Then dig a bit deeper.
When we’re listening to someone, we don’t have to be afraid of silence. Most of us dread the awkward silence that lasts for more than three seconds. But if you’ve been listening, and a person has been speaking, and it almost feels like they’re about to say something revealing—wait. And then wait a bit more. Understand that a person might be summoning the courage to share something painful, or they might simply be collecting their thoughts. Don’t ruin that by jumping in with your comments, or by changing the subject. Indeed, when we’re hearing someone, we need a couple more warnings.
1) Beware of bias: We’re all biased people. No one is fully objective, so we come to every interaction with pre-conceived ideas. But we should work hard to set aside our expectations and prejudice, because if we’re listening for the good, we’ll hear it, and if we’re listening for the bad, we’ll hear it—and then we’ll probably miss something important. Bias means that we expect certain people to be a certain way, based on past experience. We know their family, we’ve seen this kind of situation before, so we reach our conclusions quickly. But realize how your bias can short-circuit a conversation.
2) Don’t preach: Remember the wise owl we quoted last time, “The more he saw, the less he spoke; the less he spoke, the more he heard.” In helping others, we will need to speak. But we should be cautioned against excessive talking and advice-giving. We say things like, “This is what you should do. Have you tried this?…” We take out our counselling tool-box, and we start trying out different solutions.
This is hard for us—this might even be our #1 challenge in listening, knowing when to be quiet. It’s hard, because we want to share God’s truth and we’re eager to help. So we talk and talk. When this happens, and we quickly switch to preaching, the person we’re interacting with probably won’t feel understood. When we dominate a conversation with our own words, we may be giving good advice, but it’s not likely to be heard. Once again, Scripture teaches this, “The one who gives an answer before he listens—this is foolishness and disgrace for him” (Prov 18:13).
I sometimes wonder how we’d feel if we saw a transcript of our conversations with our fellow church members, a written record of everything that was said. When you broke down your various dialogues and interactions, what would you see? What would the word count be like? Do you often give long monologues? Do you ask questions but not really listen to the answers? Or would the record show good interaction? We’re not going to get transcripts of our “helping conversations,” but some self-reflection is necessary. Who’s doing all the talking? What are we saying? Is it helping? I want to underline that by your active listening, a person is told very clearly that you’re interested, and that you care.
In these two articles I’ve been emphasizing listening, that we should be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). But we do need to speak. Good responding arises out of good listening. There’s a number of aspects of responding well to someone in a conversation.
1) Leading: Even as you’re listening to someone whom you want to help, you can gently direct the conversation. You can ask questions like, “What happened next?” “What do you mean by this…” We shouldn’t be afraid of verbal detours—sometimes they lead to surprising places.
2) Reflecting: This is how you can let a person know that you’re with them, and you’re trying to understand what they think. After they have shared, you can say things like, “You must feel frustrated…” “I bet that was difficult…” “So what you’re saying is…” We shouldn’t do this so often that it’s annoying or that is seems mechanical. But a brief moment for summarizing can be a way to reflect and stimulate interaction.
3) Questioning: A person probably won’t say everything to you, but questioning can draw out useful information. The best questions are those that require at least a sentence or two to answer: “Tell me about your marriage.” “What sorts of things are making you unhappy?” Ask questions that reveal: “How are you? What is something that I can pray for you?”
4) Relating: There can be benefit in trying to show someone that you have a sense of what they’re going through. This can be delicate, for we shouldn’t pretend to know what they’ve experienced. But we can be real with them: “I struggle with this sin too. Devotions are also a challenge for me.”
5) Interpreting: We’re not psychologists, but if we’re aiming to guide and encourage someone, we can try to explain what things mean. Why has this happened? What’s the underlying issue in this conflict? As you listen, try to sort out the words. What is he or she really asking? Is this a diversion from a deeper issue? Are we hearing the whole story, or are we getting the edited version, where embarrassing or convicting details are left out?
6) Teaching: Solomon teaches in Proverbs 15:23, “A man has joy by the answer of his mouth, and a word spoken in due season, how good it is!” To speak in “due season” means thinking about the other person, their circumstances, their struggles, their needs—and then responding. And we all have a calling to build each other up. This is what Proverbs 12:25 says, “Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression, but a good word makes it glad.” This is the God-given power of our words: a handful of well-chosen and sincere words make all the difference. They suddenly put things in perspective; they bring cheer; they make peace. So we should try to be deliberate about this kind of speaking. Think carefully about what words would be best.
It’s true, we don’t always know what to say, or how to answer. Usually I only think of it a couple hours later, when the moment has long passed! But Solomon has wisdom about this in Proverbs 15:28, “The heart of the righteous studies how to answer.” We can train ourselves to speak properly by seeking God and his truth. The Scriptures give you things to say to a brother in his time of anxiety, or to a sister as she searches for God’s will. The Scriptures give you something to say as advice about parenting, or about sexual temptation, or about being a good steward of material things. When we know the Word, we’ll be ready to share the Word.
Helping a fellow member of Christ’s body can be demanding work. It’s work that requires real sensitivity to their needs and concerns. It means we must make genuine expressions of care toward them. It calls us to be constantly alert to what they are saying, and how they are saying it. But through better listening, we can be equipped for better helping. May God help us all to be people who listen in love, and then speak in truth!
Rev Reuben Bredenhof
FRC Mount Nasura