Listening Well

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How do you listen well?

I wrote a post recently about three times I failed to listen, highlighting where I was wrong and how God corrected my thinking. Today, I want to consider a few specific lessons I’ve learned regarding listening. While I haven’t mastered these (see the recurring trends in this post for evidence of that), I’m beginning to see how useful these points can be as I work to become a better listener.

1. Avoid assumptions
Many of my issues stemmed from the fact that I assumed I understood a position without actually engaging people. I thought I understood the thought of atheists or the doctrine of Catholics or the beliefs of a differing theological perspective. In reality, I’d made some massive assumptions and was responding to straw men, picking apart arguments that weren’t actually being made. I was operating in the realm of ideas detached from actual persons. If you watch for it, you’ll notice this trend appearing often around you as well. We criticize preachers without listening to their sermons, we warn against books without actually reading the books, we laugh at politicians without genuinely engaging their statements and thoughts. Closer to home, we assume the worst in friends who hurt our feelings, in loved ones whose words wound us, or in ministers who don’t meet our expectations. And while there are certainly issues and ideas that warrant our thoughtful response and criticism, I’m afraid we often assume the worst and then attack rather than lovingly seeking truth and peace with friends. Instead of assuming you know what’s coming, listen long and think deeply before speaking. Recognize that each idea you engage is held by a living being, a soul with reasoning and emotion underlying his or her beliefs. Enter discussions humbly, then, rather than brashly. As James writes, wisdom is evidenced by meekness.

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
James 3:17-18

2. Stop stereotyping
This point might technically be a continuation of the first point, but I think it’s important enough to stand alone. Because I’d made many assumptions, I thought I understood not just specific arguments but entire worldviews and the people who held them. I could neatly fit every person I encountered into a mold of my own devising, often reading things into our conversations that weren’t really there. You may recognize this tendency from social media posts. People throw around labels, grouping each other into various camps in order to better draw battle lines when disagreements arise. Liberals, conservatives, fundamentalists, heretics, those who listen to this preacher, those who read that author – the labels are numerous and nitpicky. The funny thing is that we can quickly detect the fault when we’re the ones being stereotyped. We’re offended when someone generalizes an entire group of people based on the failures of a few, yet we somehow aren’t aware that we do the same things to others. “You then who teach others,” Paul writes, “do you not teach yourself?” (Romans 2:21). The problem here, as above, lies in the detaching of beliefs from believers. We fit people into categories and thus cease to see them as people. The individuals who hold positions different from our own lose their identity and dignity as we lump them into a group we’re seeking to defeat. Learning to recognize and respect people can go a long way toward avoiding the dangers of stereotyping.

3. Love your neighbor as yourself
Jesus sums up the whole of the Law and the Prophets in the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40). The call to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) challenges us to offer the same consideration to others we expect for ourselves in discussions. We are to treat others fairly, honorably, and humbly, serving them as we would serve Christ. When we truly love people, we can avoid many of the assumptions and stereotypes to which we’re prone to make. We’ll also be teachable, able to be corrected as we listen to others. We’ll seek the good of our neighbors, good found ultimately in Jesus. We’ll see those with whom we disagree not as enemies to be defeated but as people created in the image of God, loved by God and worthy of love from us.

More could be added to this list. These are only starting points. But these are points we often forget to apply to our conversations with others. When James calls us to be “quick to hear” and “slow to speak” (James 1:19), he’s not simply giving a formula for dialogue; he’s teaching us how to live out the faith we claim to have in Christ. Let us then be people who “receive with meekness the implanted word” (James 1:21) and who show the change in our discussions with others. May all who speak to us find in us an attentive ear, a compassionate heart, and a love that reflects that of our Lord.


Photo by Alireza Attari on Unsplash

Thanks to Shanon for suggesting today’s topic. Thanks to Jamie for her help in editing this post.

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