The Art of Listening

This past election was quite a ride. Whether you supported Clinton or Trump, it’s safe to say no one saw this coming. What was perplexing to me was the lack of foresight from anyone on the final result. From my social circles all the way to major media organizations, how could no one foresee Trump running away with the election?  


To me, it was a telling sign for this generation. We’ve become excellent critics, analysts, and speakers - but we’ve lost the art of listening. We’ve developed a tendency to be reactive in all aspects of our communication rather than taking a posture of listening. It’s not just in politics, but it affects all arenas of our everyday lives: friendships, marriage, family, and churches. The result is that we’ve become a easily sensitive and angry people who always want to get in the last word.  So how is it that we can learn this art of listening? 


Listening to yourself

Some of you might scoff at this idea that anyone needs to learn the art of listening. How hard can it be? All you really have to do is just sit and hear what the person is saying, right?


Within the epistle of James is the most famous passage explicitly describing the art of listening: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). And here lies the conundrum of listening: Why is it when my wife and I are fighting, I become angrier even when I am simply “listening?” But according to James, if I “listen” and yet remain angry, I have not done what is right. 


One of the biggest tells that we are not a generation of listeners is that we are so easily angered and triggered. We can’t even listen because we are so quick to analyze, critique, and react to what is being said. Case in point, I found myself during the election to be so quick to respond to any sort of statement from someone who was voting against my preferences. Even if he or she was simply trying to state some personal convictions, I was ready with an arsenal of rebuttals. When we are quick to react and easily angered, we are only listening to ourselves. Professional speaker and author Stephen Covey put it best when he wrote, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”


We’re guilty of listening only to our preferences, our principles, and our thoughts, and then reacting to either how wrong or how right the speaker is compared with our beliefs. Whether it is your insensitive boyfriend or nagging mother, we love to take what is being said and prepare how our thoughts are better. The end result being a lot of frustration, anger, and bitterness. 


Listening to the other 

So how is it that we learn the art of listening? It begins with throwing out this notion that listening is simple. It’s not. It’s complicated. It’s messy. And even painful at times. It’s learning to truly die to yourself by giving the other person a chance to speak even if it’s completely against your own principles. 


Often we simply listen to the “what” that is being said and then add in our own “why” to justify our reaction. This scenario has played out in my relationship with my wife. In my household I am supposed to wash the dishes after meals. After one dinner, I forgot to start the dishes and was instead watching an NFL game. My wife came into the living room during halftime and snapped at me, “Could you please start the dishes?!” I clearly listened to the “what” she said but I immediately added in my “why.” “Why is she so snappy? Why doesn’t she just give me some time to finish the game? Why is she so inconsiderate?” As I began to bitterly wash the dishes, my anger grew and I slowly became frustrated with her for the whole week. 


I had chosen to listen to my own thoughts rather than what my wife was trying to convey. I didn’t factor in that she was exhausted from cooking and working, and I didn’t know that she wanted to get ready to cook lunch for both of us the next day. I simply hadn’t listened to her “why,” only mine.


Many of us fall into the same tendency of choosing to listen to ourselves and our “why’s.” My senior pastor shared this analogy - when you watch most sporting events on television there are two announcers: the play-by-play announcer and the color commentator. The play-by-play announcer simply narrates the exact plays or actions of what is transpiring on the field or arena while, the color commentator adds his or her own analysis, critique, and opinion to the plays and action. Keeping with this analogy, most of us in our own lives don’t have the neutral play-by-play announcer on, but allow our own personal color-commentators to take control of the conversation. We begin to dissect and break down every statement that’s being told to us like a color commentator rather than simply listening to the play-by-play. When this occurs we are never able to see or hear what’s actually being said by the speaker. 


We have to fight to listen to the other people rather than just ourselves. This is only done with active steps being taken with due diligence. 


Practical Steps

Fight to listen to the what, not your why

We have to fight to really listen to the “what” that is being said from other people without adding our own commentary. And if we do feel angered or hurt from their comments, we have to learn to listen to the speaker’s “why” rather than our own. 


Ask questions, don’t give statements

When in a conversation, if you’re constantly reacting to the speaker with closed statements, we are actively choosing to be heard rather than listening. We have to train ourselves to respond not in reaction but in support, asking questions to deepen our understanding rather than focusing on being heard no matter the disagreements. 


Always clarify

To truly listen is to allow the speaker to feel as if they’ve been heard, no matter how much you disagree. We need to learn to always clarify and repeat what the speaker has said. Although it seems cheesy and superfluous to always repeat words and ideas, it gives assurance that you are truly listening rather than preparing a barrage of reactions at the tip of your tongue. 


I hope that we as a generation can grow in our listening in all aspects of our lives so that we can grow to be better friends, husbands, wives, and followers of Christ. 


Eugene Park is a College Pastor at Gospel Life Mission Church in Anaheim, CA. He is a graduate of UC Riverside and is currently pursuing his M. Div. from Talbot School of Theology. He also serves as a Steering Core member of KCM and a campus pastor at UC Riverside KCM.