The Art of Listening

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If you are tired of hearing from the experts on the Coronavirus, then this may be the perfect 5-minute thoughtful distraction. If you are tired of the armchair scientists and research experts, then sit back and relax and give some consideration to a topic that has nothing to do with infectious diseases, school closures, toilet paper, politics, or President Trump.

There is an old Jewish saying that God left the ears open and exposed for quick use and access, but he obstructed the tongue behind our teeth as a bulwark against hasty use. Proverbs 10:14

I recently finished a book titled, ‘I Beg to Differ, Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love.’ which prompted this blog post. I always considered myself a good listener, but I have come to realize that while I may be carefully listening, what I am listening for could hinder a fruitful conversation. 

In fact, most people think they are moderately good at listening and would rate themselves much higher than those who know them. In one study, a group of managers evaluated their listening skills. Not one of the managers rated themselves as poor or very poor as a listener. In fact, almost all considered themselves to be good to excellent listeners, yet, every one of their subordinates did not rate them above average.1

How well do you listen? When you listen, are you just waiting for a chance to give your two cents, not really paying attention to what the person is saying? Proverbs 18:2 Researchers call that ‘pseudo listening.’ We have all experienced people like that and may have been guilty of such behavior ourselves. 

When you listen, do you assume the person does not know what they are talking about? When listening, do you tell yourself you have heard it all before, and you have nothing to gain from hearing what they have to say? Philippians 2:3 When you listen, do you assume they are lying or manipulating the truth because of preconceived notions? Do you take the council of others or ignore it and trust in your feelings? Proverbs 12:15, Proverbs 28:26 Researchers call all this ‘prejudgement,’ and whatever type of communication is going to take place is hindered from the start. 

In a more recent study, two hundred college students were given a list of sensitive topics, some even controversial. After looking the list over the students were asked if they thought it was possible to have an open, give and take conversation with others on the topics listed. The researcher, Carl Trosset, was surprised to learn only 5% of the students expressed an interest in any kind of open give and take discussion. The vast majority just wanted an opportunity to voice their concerns, beliefs, and feelings with no desire to understand and learn more about another person’s point-of-view.2 Proverbs 18:15

The reasons we listen to others are varied and plentiful. It could be for pleasure simply because they are a good storyteller. Possibly to support a friend who needs someone to listen to them, or they just need an opportunity to vent about their day. We listen to sermons, lectures, and Ted Talks. We listen to the radio when we drive to work, we listen and sometimes memorize lyrics to our favorite songs. We tune in and listen to local and national news to find out what is going on in the world around us. Some of us have our favorite podcasts or enjoy books on Audible. Whatever the reason, we all listen to others throughout our day, and how we listen will make a difference in not only what we learn, but who we become.

Not long ago I attended a CTA (California Teachers Association) conference in San Jose and spent most of my weekend listening to others. One of the speakers talked about the points that divide us as educators. Indeed, politics, most in the education circles, are more liberal in their views, while a few (like myself) are more conservative. Grade levels divide us; some teach elementary school, others Jr. High, High School, and some in special education. Subjects divide us; some teach language arts, some math, or history, or science. Coming up with a lengthy list of reasons each of us would have different priorities would not be difficult, but he rightly pointed out what unites us is the youth, our students, and our joy in working with them. 

As Christians, we can also come together, despite at times glaring differences. How the different denominations view His deity, His sacrifice, and His resurrection can divide us. Cessationism vs. continuationism, young earth vs. old earth, Baptist, Prespertian, Catholic, Luthern, Calvinist vs. Arminianism, etc. are just a few examples. Christians can come together because of Christ and His first two commandments. Matthew 22:36-40 Those that adopt a Christ-like behavior and mind-set to cure social ills are missing the mark entirely. Christ did not come to provide to the poor, help the homeless, heal the hurting, though he did those things, and we should too. No, Christ came to address a much deeper need within all of us. If you are a Christian and want to share about that deep need, that only Christ can address, then you need to listen well to what others are saying.

Finding common ground also applies to those outside our faith circle, those who have other beliefs. In a conversation with someone, consider looking for common ground, not with what is wrong in their thinking but what you might agree with. Personally, this goes against my nature. When I grade papers, when I ask students questions, when I scan the room, I look for what is wrong. I watch for who is not on task, I listen to correct their pronunciation, I look for the wrong answers on their papers. The same goes for when I hear others sharing their beliefs. More often than not, I am listening for what is wrong, not what I agree with.

When you listen to someone, what is your goal? Tim Muehlhoff, the author of ‘The God Conversation,’ says there are two reasons we listen, to understand, and evaluate. As important as both of those are, it is crucial that we place them in the proper order.((Muehlhoff, Tim. “What Does This Person Believe?” I Beg To Differ, Downers Grove, IVP Books, 2014, p. 94))

If your first goal in listening to someone is to evaluate, then it is quite possible, even likely, your ‘prejudgment’ will taint your evaluation of that individual and what they are communicating. If anyone has been married for more than a few years, you know what I am talking about, and we are all guilty of it. If you couple that with emotional reasoning (you believe what you feel is the truth), then there is little hope for any fruit to come from such a conversation. 

Communication researcher John Nyquist studied initial conversations between patients and doctors. What he found was that, on average, a patient had 18 seconds to describe or explain what the problem was before the physician interrupted and began to diagnose the problem.((Nyquist, Michael. “Ward Rounds” Learning to Listen, Northwestern University Medical School, 1992, pp. 11-15)) How many seconds do you give someone to share their thoughts, and are you listening to evaluate or to understand them? Proverbs 18:13

It may surprise some of you to find out that Richard Dawkins, a militant atheist supported an idea to place a King James Bible in every state-sponsored school. The initial idea came from the British Secretary of Education, Michael Gove, who was surprised to find an ally in Dawkins. Richard Dawkins asked, “What do they have, then? Harry Potter?”((Dawkins, Richard. “Why I Want All Our Children to Read the King James Bible | Richard Dawkins.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 19 May 2012, Both men considered it a great work of literature despite vastly different beliefs. 

In Colorado Springs, two wildly opposed organizations, ‘Focus on the Family’ and the newspaper ‘The Independent’, came together to address the needs of Colorado’s foster care system. A short time later, Jim Daly was featured on the cover of The Independent. These two organizations are on opposite ends of the political system, yet they came together for the benefit of Colorado’s youth. 

Someone said a wise communicator seeks to build agreements, not arguments. Proverbs 18:19

A dear friend of mine passed away a few months ago. He hated God and anything that had to do with organized religion. He was, without a doubt, one of the foulest and crudest individuals I ever knew. Yet we were both drawn to the martial arts and spent countless hours on the mat. Usually, with my butt getting kicked. He once said to me, “Class is never over till there is blood on the mat.” Over time those many hours solidified a bond that was never really broken. Despite his rude and obscene behavior, if he considered you a friend, he would do anything for you, and I was fortunate enough to be considered his friend. 

Finding reasons for a division is easy, and with an election around the corner, political commercials, Facebook memes, Twitter comments, only add to our differences. Conservative vs. liberal, Christian vs. atheist, pro-life vs. pro-choice, capitalism vs. communism, the list can go on. Maybe consider looking for common ground the next time you are about to post on Facebook or Tweet something. 

If you study communications, there is a communications theory. Very simply, it looks at the processes of information, specifically the medium and the content. The medium is the way you communicate, the message is the content, and we as Christians are to have wisdom in both. I heard Sean MeDowel say Jesus came in grace (the medium), and he came in truth, (the content). 

The late Malcolm Forbes told a tale that many consider true, which demonstrates the consequence of ‘prejudgement’ when communicating. The story is about a modestly dressed couple who drove to Harvard University, wishing to see the Harvard University president. The president’s secretary sized them up as a backwoods country couple and told them the president was too busy, and they would have to come back at another time. The couple insisted on waiting, all day if necessary. The secretary relented, not wanting them to hang around in the office all day and gave them a few minutes with Harvard’s President. A few minutes later, the couple entered the affluent office and quickly introduced themselves, explaining that their son had attended Harvard for a year and was quite happy at the university. Tragically he was killed in an accident, and they wanted to erect a memorial to him on campus. 

The president quickly dismissed their idea and told them with little sympathy that if everyone wanted to build a statue for alumni who had passed on, it would soon look like a cemetery. The mother explained they wanted to donate a building, not a statue. The president rolled his eyes, thinking how clueless the couple were. He explained that the physical plant of the university cost over 7 million dollars, and erecting a new building would be a significant amount of money. 

The couple stood and walked out. As they left the office, the president and secretary overheard the mother say, “If that’s all it costs to start a university, maybe we should start our own.”

Mr. and Mrs. Stanford left Harvard and traveled to Palo Alto, California, and built Stanford University as a memorial to their late son.

Before your next conversation with someone, think about what you are listening for. 

There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.

― G. K. Chesterton

  1. Brownell, J. (1990). Perceptions of effective listeners: A management study [Electronic version]. Retrieved [Feb. 10, 2020], from Cornell University School of Hotel Administration site: []
  2. Muehlhoff, Tim. “What Does This Person Believe?” I Beg To Differ, Downers Grove, IVP Books, 2014, p. 91 []

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