Was there anyone in your childhood who ever gave you their full attention - a teacher, grandparent or neighbour? They looked into your eyes with a smile and asked you friendly questions, listening for a moment, at least, to whatever you wanted to tell them. What a feeling!
How often does that happen to you now?
Sometimes conversations feel like competitions. Self-absorbed talkers apparently think that you have nothing to say that’s really worth their attention. To them, there is no sound as sweet as their own voice. If they pause long enough for you to make a comment, whatever you (quickly) say reminds them immediately of something in their own life and instead of expressing any interest in what you just said, they respond with another comment about themselves.
They don’t seem to realize that what they’re actually communicating is, “Well, what you just said about your life (your job, your illness, your child, your vacation trip) is a good excuse for me to talk about myself again (my job, my illness, my child, etc.). All that I’m really interested in is ME.
I’ve often left this kind of exhausting and futile type of interaction wondering why these folks don’t just stay at home and talk to a wall, or a mirror. They don’t seem to care whether others make any response to what they say. They certainly have no regard, let alone love, for their listeners.
Although the bible clearly says that we "should be quick to listen and slow to speak." (James 1:19), I admit that I had to consciously learn how to listen well.
My education in this skill began when I attended local parenting classes, soon after I became a mother. I was fascinated to discover that when toddlers are screaming “Mine!” we can often defuse the situation by temporarily removing the toy from the fray and listening to the little combatants.
“Oh, poor you. You really, really want this car, don’t you?” Tearful nod.
“And you really don’t want Jason to have it, do you?” Vehement head shake.
”And Jason really wants it too, right Jason?”
“Yes! It’s MINE!”
“Oh dear, what should we do? Both of you really want this car.”
I was astonished that even three year olds could often compromise after they felt properly heard. They would suggest taking turns or one would volunteer to use a different car for playing.
Decades later I witnessed the same technique offered in marriage counselling. Labelled “active listening”, it is one of the clearest expressions of selfless love. When you speak, I look at you with attention, nod, smile, and make encouraging sounds. When you finish I ask you questions so that I can understand you better. I listen carefully to your answers. Later it will be my turn to speak and yours to actively listen to me.
This works on every level, whether we’re in conversation with a child who says, “I hate school”, or a friend who tells us about an exciting vacation. We don’t immediately start talking about our own school days, or about the time we skied across Antarctica. There will come a time when those comments may be welcomed, but not until we’ve heard the other out.
One of the ways our Creator has always expressed the deepest love for humanity has been by listening to us.
“Before they even call out I will respond; while they are still speaking I will hear…Does the one who made the human ear not hear?
Call on me in prayer and I will answer you. I will show you great and mysterious things which you still do not know about”
(Is. 65:24, Psalm 94:9 Jer. 33:3)
It’s quite simple, really. If we don’t truly listen, we don’t truly love.