It’s disconcerting to me how I can take my surroundings and the people I know for granted. It’s not necessarily that I’m self-centered, although sometimes I am. It’s that I have, like everyone else, a tendency to habituate to the people and things I know well. As a result, we become less sensitive to them.
One of the areas we take for granted is dialogue—the give-and-take conversation between two people. This exchange is actually a somewhat complicated process, involving the expression of one’s identity, emotions, motivations, experience, skills, and spirituality.
It seems to me that for many of us, healthy dialogue is becoming a lost art.
Perhaps it’s because more of our discussions take place through an electronic medium. Purported to bring everyone in the world closer, digital messaging handicaps us when it comes to picking up on the nuances of human interaction. Having spent most of my life in a profession grounded in interpersonal communication, I still find it frustrating to carry on a conversation without a face-to-face encounter.
For some people, the news and entertainment media along with their scripted dialogues and sound bites are replacing experience as a teacher. Conversation in real life tends to be less articulate and more frustrating.
We also hear and see examples of people unwilling to listen to others when their message or beliefs don’t fit one’s biases or agendas. Some young people feel justified shouting down speakers whose ideas don’t agree with theirs. The sad irony is that these individuals who profess to stand for peace are using methods that foster discord.
How is it that so many are ready to affix labels and vocalize protests before they ever really listen to what others have to say? How can one assume what the other intends to express before letting them finish and asking questions? How can we know one’s motives if we refuse to hear them out?
If we are ever going to achieve solidarity, cooperation and peaceful relationships between persons and nations, we must first learn to listen.
Because of its familiarity, dialogue is a topic where few people feel a need to improve. But even the informed can demonstrate a significant gap between what they know and practice. So, here are three steps we should follow, and you can check your own behavior against this list.
- Adjust your attitude. Commit to becoming a top-notch listener. I don’t know many people who really work at listening. Resolve to give others your full attention. Hearing others is essential to loving others and building unity. Always speak the truth, but do so in love.
- Work on your listening skills. There are three fundamental skills to learn:
If we’re ever to hear and understand, we have first to pay attention. Adopt a posture of attention by facing the speaker, opening up your folded arms and crossed legs, leaning toward the speaker, and making eye contact. Remove or turn away from distractions.
Try not to interrupt the speaker. Ask questions while they’re speaking only to clarify your understanding. Try to see the story unfold through the speaker’s eyes by putting yourself in their shoes. Don’t make their story about you!
C) Reflective listening.
Periodically reflect back what you hear the other person saying. Give feedback in your own words, indicating that you’re working at processing the content rather than only standing in passively. Reflect back the emotions expressed by the other, for people are not always able to readily recognize or articulate what they feel.
Incidentally, we can take the same three steps to enhance our listening in prayer. First, we place ourselves in a setting and posture of attentiveness; of solitude and inner quiet. Next, we direct ourselves fully to following our Master—both “verbally” and non-verbally as we look at His movements in our spirit. Finally, we give back to Him what we have received through a change of heart; in word and action.
- Go deeper.
There are three levels of listening: (1) to hear the verbal content of someone’s speech, (2) to attend to the non-verbal behaviors and underlying emotive state, and (3) to recognize the spiritual dimension and where someone is in their relationship with God.
Attending to the spiritual dimension takes prayer and the aid of the Holy Spirit, but we can move in the right direction by asking three questions:
- “What is in their heart?”
- “What is their deeper need or motivation?”
- “Where is this person in their relationship with Jesus?”
Take a step toward changing the world and listen.