Dr. Paul Tillich, a German-born theologian and philosopher, whose controversial discussions of God and faith in an attempt to connect traditional Christianity with modern culture once wrote: “The first duty of love is to listen.”1 Sometimes we forget that the best way of showing our love for someone is simply to listen to what they have to say about how they feel before we start talking.
One of the most effective ways to show strength as a mature person is to practice two types of listening: active listening and authentic listening. Active listening involves getting involved in the conversation. Instead of gazing off into the distance while they are talking, or drumming your fingers on the desk or even began to do something else while you listen, look into their face and encourage them to share openly and honestly. You can do this by saying to them, “Tell me more,” or “That’s very interesting,” or even, “It sounds like you had a lot to deal with.”
Authentic listening involves active listening plus giving them feedback on what you think you hear them saying, and keep confirming with them that you understood them correctly. Don’t do it in a way that they feel you are questioning their honesty, but as a way to test your own interest in what they’re telling you. You can do this by asking, “Let me see if I understood you correctly. This is what I heard you say. Then repeat not just the words spoken but what you detected was the point they were trying to make.
Research has shown how listening can transform both professional and personal relationships. Set the goal of fully understanding the thoughts and feelings people are trying to express in all your conversation. Pose questions and communicate insights to draw people out, to open them up, and to clarify what is said. Encourage people to say what is behind their thoughts. Resist the urge to express your viewpoint, or give an answer, which shuts people down.
Not only will this help you to understand the value and contribution others can offer, but it will also create a new openness – a platform for genuine interaction – that allow you and everyone else to gain a greater respect for each other. I always told those who came to me for counseling that I did not provide answers wrapped in a beautiful box with a bow on top. My goal would be to let them know what I was hearing them say, and compare that to what they really meant to say.
King Solomon suggested that it is better to be a listener than a talker. He advised that even when a person who does not know a lot is willing to listen, they are considered to be smart; when they are silently engaged in the conversation, they are thought of as intelligent.2 That way you can learn what is going on instead telling someone what is going on. Mark Twain made this very famous statement: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” Twain was not suggesting we just shut up and listen, but to help us prevent saying things before we’ve really thought them through.
The Apostle James echoed these words when giving some wise advice for his readers when he told them: “Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.”3 In other words, let the other person know that you are interested in what they have to say. Don’t keep interrupting them with your unsolicited advice. And don’t get emotionally involved by trying to straighten them out. After all, that’s what God does when we talk Him about our problems or how we feel about something He did or did not do for us. – Dr. Robert R Seyda
1 Paul Tillich: Love, Power, and Justice, Oxford University Press, 1954, p. 84
2 Proverbs 17:28
3 James 1:19