Listening might be defined as the ability to accurately receive and interpret messages in the communication process. Fundamental to being a human is our ability to communicate with other humans. Meaningful relationships are what make us fully human and proper communication is absolutely critical to this end.
Effective listening is thus a skill that underpins all positive human relationships. Communication gurus call it the missing half of communication. The skill of good listening is incredibly rare. For while there is a vast amount of talking and broadcasting in our world, how much real listening is taking place?
Listening requires full attention, focused concentration, and careful thinking.
Jesus commanded us, “Consider carefully how you listen” (Luke 8:18). So listening is not a passive skill. It is not merely being quiet and letting the other person speak. It requires full attention, focused concentration, and careful thinking. This means most of us are bad listeners. Below I show why we struggle to listen, before contrasting good and bad communication. Finally, I will point to Jesus as the ultimate model when it comes to listening.
Five Obstacles to Listening
1. We are Not Taught to Listen
Nobody took me aside and taught me to listen. It’s one of the most fundamental skills that a human can master. Yet it’s not deliberately taught and it’s rarely modelled. There are no courses or electives in schools and universities on this fundamental subject. Ironically, where the mode of learning is by and large through listening, we are not even taught how to do it.
2. All of Us Struggle with Pride
Behind bad listening is a complex of evil. For various forms of arrogance lie behind bad listening. We think we know everything about the speaker, both in their person and their situation. Furthermore we believe we can anticipate what someone is going to say. The listener is actually rehearsing his response, sometimes even finishing their sentences. Interruptions and impatience indicate pride. An impatient listener is not able to fully engage in the present. Thus pride is an enemy of listening.
3. Various Forms of Laziness
Listening is hard work. Proper listening requires full attention, focus, and concentration. It’s far easier to keep nodding, saying “yes” intermittently while tuning the speaker out. Few of us excel at listening, because we are lazy.
4. Our World is too Noisy
In fact, moments of quiet frighten the living daylights out of many people. Why? The rise of technology and the explosion of social media. We take refuge in our headphones, actively shutting others out, while we prefer brief soundbites and distractions through WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok. Conversation is replaced by broadcasting. It’s very hard to pay attention to the quiet or the subtle in such a noisy world.
5. The Ways We Relax and Unwind
Linked with the above, watching series or checking out the endless options online encourages bad listening. For many contemporary people, their favourite kind of relaxation is to “veg” in front of a screen, whether it’s mindlessly scrolling or endless streaming. Consuming media in this way requires only superficial listening and trains us in those habits.
What Does God Say About Bad Listening?
In the book of Proverbs we find practical wisdom from God. Much of this wisdom is concerned with communication, both speaking and listening. For example, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Proverbs 18:2). Similarly, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13).
The fool only finds pleasure in speaking. Because of pride he doesn’t care about understanding.
The “fool”—a very strong word—is someone who doesn’t listen and therefore doesn’t understand. Instead, he speaks too quickly. The first proverb above says that the fool only finds pleasure in saying what he wants to say. Because of pride, selfishness, and self-importance, the fool doesn’t care about understanding. He is impulsive. He answers without listening. According to the second proverb, such a person is both foolish and shameful.
How Can We Become Better Listeners?
Writing in the 1st century, Jesus’ half brother said: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). Being quick to listen and slow to speak is a disposition indicative of both wisdom and love. The profile of a good listener is the opposite of the proverbial fool. The wise listener is patient, energetic, focused. She lets the other person finish without interrupting. She is eager to put others before herself. Thus she listens and works hard to understand the other person. She doesn’t think too highly of herself.
Being quick to listen and slow to speak is a disposition indicative of both wisdom and love.
Good listening also requires appropriate body language. The listener faces the speaker and maintains eye contact. We don’t interrupt and we don’t impose our “quick fix solutions.” We ask appropriate questions to clarify things and make sure that we are understanding things correctly. We tune in to the other person, put ourselves in their shoes.
Learning Conversation from Jesus
Consider Jesus and his conversations. He was a listener, par excellence; the true physician of the human soul! How engaged he was. Observe how he listened to others, asking questions in response. He also listened to what was not said. For he was skilled at drawing others out, communicating sympathy. What would Martha, or blind Bartimaeus, or the woman at the well, or the disciples, say about Jesus? He listened. He never merely listened to words, but he listened for attitudes and he listened for the whole range of emotions. Jesus listened in a way that communicated compassion and care, taking the time to understand others.
Jesus listened in a way that communicated compassion and care, taking the time to understand others.
Do you want to be like the proverbial fool? Or do you want to be like Jesus? Growth in listening is a key part of sanctification. It’s critical for caring about each other. Good news: no matter how good or bad you currently are at it, listening is a skill you can develop. But you’ll never do it apart from God’s strength and his grace. Nor will you do it so long as you love yourself—and your own voice—more than you do the person who is speaking to you.