We live in a world where some of the most popular forms of communication actually make us worse listeners. Just think about the number of words that pass through your mind on any given day: texts, social media posts, headlines, television, radio, podcasts, friends, coworkers, emails, books, articles, etc. We’re consuming more information than ever before, but we’re also cultivating the habit of hearing information and immediately forgetting it. While this may make us more efficient tweeters, it dulls our ability to truly listen.
Genuine listening requires us to fight against this tide. We have to push back against the internal and external enemies of listening so that we can intentionally engage with people. We can’t just assume that hearing someone’s words means we’re actually listening to them. Love requires more. In fact, listening is probably one of the hardest acts of love God calls us to. That is why listening requires intentionality. We’re not going to listen well by accident. We need to make a concerted effort to listen well and to develop the character traits that strengthen our ability to listen.
What comes to mind when you think of good listening skills? I think of a list of practical tips I received in my Intro to Psych course in college. It included things like making eye contact, leaning forward, using verbal responses, and repeating what you’ve heard back to the person. Have you ever tried to apply tips like these? I have. I’ve sat with someone in a church office and looked into their eyes, leaned toward them with my elbows on my knees, made some well-timed “hmm”s and “uh-huh”s, and periodically responded with, “So it sounds like you’re saying . . . ” The only problem is, it didn’t seem to make me any better of a listener. Instead of really listening, I was distracted by all the tips I was supposed to follow. And what’s more, I probably looked like an intimidating, overly caffeinated counseling zealot as I stared this person down while they tried to open up and share.
This has led me to believe that good listening doesn’t come as a result of following certain “tips” or even developing certain external skills. Good listening comes as the result of the character qualities that are the natural product of love—qualities like intentionality (as I just mentioned), patience, compassion, and curiosity.
When we genuinely love someone, we invest the time it takes to simply let them share, even when the sharing is inefficient, scattered, or confused. Now, I’m not saying that you should always let someone talk as much as they want to; there will inevitably be times when a person’s talking is counterproductive. But in order to truly get to know someone, we must take the time to listen beyond an initial, basic sharing of facts. People aren’t machines, and their minds don’t work like a Google search. When someone is wrestling through hurts and struggles, we must create the space to let them mentally wander a bit so that we can truly get to know them as a person.
In addition, many issues, both in people’s pasts and in their hearts, are more complex than can be explained or understood in one conversation. Getting to know people takes time. We can often be eager to offer a Bible verse and see people on their way instead of taking the time to really understand the multitude of factors that have contributed to their current situation.
It makes me think of a scene in Alan Paton’s incredible work Cry, the Beloved Country shortly after two of the main characters, Kumalo and Msimangu, meet for the first time. Kumalo is from a small, far-off village. Msimangu lives in the big city, Johannesburg, where the scene takes place. They begin to talk about their unique experiences and the complex worlds in which they live, but then Msimangu stops the conversation short and simply says, “These things are too many to talk about now. They are things to talk over quietly and patiently.”4 This seems like a perfect sentiment for many of the messy moments when those we are ministering to are hurting and struggling. These “are things to talk over quietly and patiently.”
But this kind of patience does not exist in a vacuum. Genuine patience always goes hand in hand with genuine concern and care. This is why listening also requires compassion. When we love someone, we will inevitably care enough about them to be both truly interested and emotionally moved. Since this was true of our Savior, it should be true of us as well. Jesus’ compassion is unmistakable throughout the Gospels and is mentioned explicitly multiple times: “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36); “And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep’” (Luke 7:13).
Jesus’ love for those around him produced deep and emotionally engaged compassion. When we are emotionally engaged with those we’re ministering to, we are present with them in a way that heightens our ability and desire to listen. On top of that, our listening makes us more insightful. Compassion gives us ears to hear the “question behind the question” or the “story behind the story.” When we are both intellectually and emotionally engaged with someone, we gain a sensitivity that God uses to help us come to know them more fully. Not to mention the fact that genuine compassion produces an environment that encourages further sharing because people know that we really do care. “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience . . . ” (Col. 3:12).
Lastly, if we are to truly help others understand themselves and their multifaceted trials (James 1:2) in the light of God’s Word, listening requires curiosity. When we love someone intentionally, patiently, and compassionately, we are going to be interested enough to not only listen to what they share but to also wonder about the details they haven’t yet shared. While pride assumes it knows a person before it has all the facts, humility recognizes there’s always more to learn.
This article has been excerpted from Loving Messy People: The Messy Art of Helping One Another Become More Like Jesus by Scott Mehl. Now available at shepherdpress.org and amazon.com.
Scott Mehl (D.Min., Southern Seminary) pastors Cornerstone Church of West LA (since 2005). His ministry focuses include preaching, teaching, counseling, and church-wide vision. He is a regular writer and speaker on topics related to practical theology. He is also a certified counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors and an adjunct faculty member at Eternity Bible College. Scott lives in Culver City, CA with his wife and four children.