The Ministry of Listening

On the night Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest friends, Jesus said that his followers would be identified in the culture at large by the love they showed to each other. We often think that we show love to one another by doing things for one another, and that idea is not wrong. Just today in my church, we blessed and prayed for a small group of people who are preparing to leave for El Salvador where they will help Habitat for Humanity build houses. We are accustomed in churches to use the word “ministry” for the types of activity that show our love for one another. We expect someone who performs a ministry to be actively doing something.

In today’s world, we expect people to be very active all the time, whether in ministry, or in other activities. I hear people apologize constantly for any failure to do something, by saying, “I was just so busy.” In other words, people have way too many activities on their to-do lists to do all the activities on the list. One of the casualties of all that busyness is listening. For example, I have a friend whom I seldom actually see or talk to. She is quite busy. She almost never answers the phone when I call. I leave voice mail. If I really want her attention, I send e-mail. She is more likely to answer her e-mail with a quick sentence or two than to call me back after hearing my voice mail. When we do see each other, it always takes a while to get through her recitation of her busy schedule before we can begin to talk about the things that make us interested in each other. This state of affairs is very common these days. A real conversation is about talking and listening, but way too much of our interaction with people is about saying, or texting, or tweeting, or e-mailing, what we have to say. Not nearly enough is about listening to others.

I am starting to understand in my old age that one of the kindest, most helpful things people can do for each other is to listen. Have you ever felt completely alone in a room full of people? It happens all the time. People with the gift of hosting are attuned to the signal that somebody in the room is isolated. They find that person, engage him or her in conversation, and introduce that person to someone by saying something like, “Ellen, have you met Jody? Just wait till you hear where she went on vacation this year.” Jody, who used to be isolated and lonely, now has a cue to speak up, a topic to talk about, and a listener primed to pay attention. Jody feels a lot better about things already.

In the book, No Future Without Forgiveness, the South African bishop Desmond Tutu describes the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as South Africa moved away from apartheid. He wrote that very often people said that the simple fact that the commission listened as they spoke was in itself healing. They needed to tell their stories, but they also needed attentive, respectful hearers. After the opportunity to speak the truth to someone who listened all the way to the end, they were ready to forgive the people who had done terrible things to them, or to those they loved. Simply speaking the truth to people who listened started the healing process.

It is easy to validate Bishop Tutu’s observations when you realize the value of counselors, psycho-therapists, and psychiatrists. These people provide the great service of listening to troubled people. Then they ask questions and listen again. Articles and books on the subject are full of examples of people who actually solved their own problems as they simply talked and talked and talked to someone who would listen.

It is a principle of relationship-building that people need to listen. If you want to have friends, you must be a friend, and one of the fastest ways to make a friend is to listen. As soon as you stop talking and give your full attention to the other person, that person starts to think better of you. If you are listening so attentively that you only speak to ask questions, you will endear yourself to the person speaking. It will be obvious that you are not scheming to figure out how to stop listening and start talking instead.

Good listeners don’t just sit quietly. They truly pay attention and try to get the whole story. Some of us tell our stories in a disjointed fashion, jumping forward and backward in time, making it hard for the listener to sort out the narrative. Good listeners ask questions, or even say things such as, “I think you said you went to your grandmother’s house before you went to work that day. Is that the way it was?” The dialogue in police stories on television often moves forward with the question, “And what happened next?” A good listener asks such questions and indicates to the speaker that there is plenty of time and plenty of attention for him to finish the story.

Good listeners actually look at the speaker, too. They aren’t checking the time or staring out the window. They make eye contact with the speaker, giving the non-verbal message that they value what the speaker is saying.

A good listener encourages the speaker by remaining silent when the speaker falls silent. Especially when a story is intensely personal, or when the story is about a very painful experience, the speaker may stop talking. He may be gathering his thoughts. He may be unable to speak due to emotion. He may not know how to put his real thoughts into words. A good listener won’t jump in to make comments or draw inappropriate conclusions before the story is ended. The speaker needs time, and good listeners make it seem that there is all the time in the world.

Jesus said that we should serve one another and love one another. One of the finest ways we can serve one another and show our love is to listen. We all go to God with our troubles and we expect that he will listen. If we want to be like him, we will learn how to serve family and friends by listening.

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One thought on “The Ministry of Listening”

  1. Hello! You are so right, being there for people and listening is a part of allowing them to heal from whatever they’re dealing with. I’m so glad I found your blog here,it echo’s a lot of things that I’ve been thinking and writing about! Thanks again!

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