I think listening comes easier for some of us than it does for others. I’m not naturally a good listener; I’m a talker. But that doesn’t let me off the hook. I still need to be a good listener—and so do you.
James 1:19 says, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak. . .” What is it about listening that makes it so important?
For one thing, when we’re good listeners, we show compassion and concern for others. We make them feel special when we practice Philippians 2:3-4 which says, “In humility, consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” It’s a biblical principle to be a good listener.
Like all biblical principles, when we practice good listening, we receive the benefits as well. It’s a win-win idea. For example, the better I listen, the less I embarrass myself or put my foot in my mouth; the more information I have—and information is power; the more I improve my relationships—people like people who listen; the fewer problems I have to deal with, because good listening often solves problems before they start; the more successful I’ll be in my career, because good listening promotes success; and the better my decisions will be because they’ll be more informed and thought out.
What keeps us from being good listeners? Don’t you think self-centeredness is one key reason? Good listening requires an absence of self-focus.
Another reason we’re not good listeners is because we’re thoughtless and undisciplined. Listening takes effort and energy; it takes concentration. Without a willingness to be disciplined, we won’t be good listeners.
Proverbs 1:5 says, “…let the wise listen and add to their learning.” A wise person is a good listener.
Now, let’s define some of the more common bad listening habits.
My worst habit as a listener is that my mind wanders easily. Do you have that problem, too? I can look you in the eye, have a sincere look on my face, and not hear a word you say. My mind just floats off to somewhere else.
Let me suggest a very practical way to work on that problem: Take notes while you listen. For me, this helps a great deal because it forces me to keep my mind on what the other person is saying. You can do this while talking on the telephone, in meetings with one person or a group, in church—lots of places. Take a note pad and pen with you and use it freely to help you stay focused on what the other person is saying. You may be surprised to see how handy those notes will come in later on, too.
Another bad listening habit is the tendency to wait for our turn to talk rather than listen. Do you often find yourself getting your next speech together while someone is talking to you? They say something which triggers a thought in your mind, and you quit listening and simply wait for your turn to say what you want to say.
Maybe you have the tendency to interrupt people. That certainly interferes with good listening and it also makes people angry. It is a rude habit. I’m sure you don’t like it when people interrupt you, but think, how often do you interrupt others?
Here’s another one we’re all guilty of at times: Completing the other person’s sentences for them. Often I find myself finishing what the other person started, especially if they happen to be a slow communicator.
Here’s another bad listening habit that causes lots of problems: The tendency to listen only to find fault. Do you start nick-picking everything someone is saying to you, straightening them out on all the details, and missing the essence of what that person is trying to communicate to you? Do you always have to set the other person right when you hear a statement you feel is wrong?
Proverbs 18:13 says, “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.” Even if you’re pretty sure that person is wrong, let him or her finish what they have to say. Give them the courtesy of listening to them all the way. You’ll often be surprised to find out it was different than you thought.
When you interrupt someone to correct them, it intimidates that person, or angers them—or both. That is one reason parents and children have difficulty communicating, because often the parent will cut the child off and correct them before they even have a chance to finish. If you want your child to be respectful toward you and others, you need to role model that behavior for them. Respect the other person’s right to his or her opinion, even if you think it is wrong or you disagree with that person.
Maybe you are a defensive listener. Do you tend to take everything personally, and make people feel like they must walk on eggshells with you all the time? That’s a sign of defensive listening and it causes lots of problems.
Are there some people that you immediately dismiss or discount before they even start talking to you? I imagine there is someone you deal with on a regular basis whom you tend to tune out regularly, perhaps because they talk too much or bend your ear too often or talk about silly things.
I want to encourage you to start expecting something good instead of assuming they have nothing to say that will interest you. If you carry negative expectations into any communication scene–whether it’s an individual or a meeting you need to attend—then you aren’t likely to hear anything worthwhile that is communicated because your mind has been prejudiced against it already.
Watch out for selective listening bad habits. We often hear what we want to hear and tune out what we don’t want to hear or what doesn’t interest us. But that can create a great deal of misunderstanding in the future.
Do you know what your emotional hot-buttons are? All of us have them—those issues or situations which cause you to go into some stereotypical reaction and keeps you from hearing what is really being said. For example, your emotional hot-button may be a certain kind of personality that rubs you the wrong way; the man who wears one earring, or the person who wears fashions you think are inappropriate; someone of another race, someone with bad grammar, or someone you think is not as intelligent as you.
What often happens is that as soon as someone touches one of our hot-buttons, we stop listening and go into react-mode. This causes all kinds of miscommunication and tension between people. Identify your personal emotional hot-buttons, pray about them, and ask God to make you sensitive to those things that can cause you to tune people out.
Did you ever try to talk to someone who just looked at you with a blank stare, or maybe they didn’t look at you, or their body language was closed and cold? If we’re going to be good listeners, we must listen with our whole body.
Begin with good eye contact. If you look someone in the eye as they talk to you, it sends all kinds of good messages to the person who is talking and assures them you are listening. Then, convey with your body position that you’re listening: lean toward the person who is talking to you, not away from them. Watch out for crossed arms which can send a “closed” message. Remove physical barriers, such as desks, between you. Use facial expressions—head nods and verbal sounds—to acknowledge that you are, indeed, listening. These non-verbal indications are very loud and can make a world of difference when you’re trying to communicate.
I want to encourage you to identify just one area where you know you need to improve your listening skills—the one you feel gives you the most trouble—and start praying about it. Pray James 1:19 into your life daily: “Lord, help me today to be quick to listen.” Specifically pray about your worst listening habit so that you will have the power of the Holy Spirit to enable you to overcome that problem.
Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them. . .” (John 10:27). I wonder, how well do you listen to the voice of Jesus? Most of us are really good at talking to the Lord and telling him what we want him to do. Think about your own prayer life: How much of your prayer time is consumed with these kinds of prayers?
- “Lord, please help me today.”
- “Lord, please heal me.”
- “Lord, please help my family.”
- “Lord, please bless me.”
Of course our heavenly Father wants us to bring all our cares to him, but it’s extremely important that we listen to his voice if we’re one of his sheep.
Maybe you’re asking, “Well, how do I listen to the voice of Jesus?” First, you need to stop talking. You can’t listen to anyone while you are talking. The Psalmist wrote, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). This means you have to get your mind settled and focused; clear out all distractions and focus on Jesus.
In order to hear his voice you have to know what it sounds like. This comes through being very familiar with what he has already said to you through the Word of God. Jesus is going to speak to you most often directly through the written word, and he’ll never say anything to you that in any way contradicts the written word. But you must have a consistent plan to study the Bible, read it, and get into it in depth, so that you can hear his voice.
Our society is not a listening society. We are all too busy, we move too fast, everything is rushed, and we’re often too self-absorbed to listen. Therefore, in order to be good listeners—to other people and to Jesus as well—we will have to learn to slow down, take the time required to be a good listener, learn some techniques to help us, work on our bad habits, and pray much that God will indeed teach us how to be quick to listen. You’ll have a better testimony for Jesus on your job if you learn to listen better. I encourage you to take this seriously.