Hey. I’ll listen. Need to say something? Need to get something off your chest? Need to just be heard? I will listen. Really.
I had a great conversation this week with a friend and fellow life coach about the struggle we often face to listen well. Sometimes we’re just wired to be talking. Sometimes our own pride wants to speak and to share and to be getting the attention. Sometimes we just don’t care what the other person is talking about.
But the other person has an intrinsic right to be heard. My friend said that he felt that “he owed it to the person speaking to listen as well as he could.” I think he’s right. He owes a debt of listening to the people around him. I owe that debt to others. I owe that debt to you.
We pulled out our Bibles and sat with Paul for a bit in the letter in the Philippians…
“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Philippians 2:1-4
That’s kinda cool, huh? I have a debt to care about the things that interest you. Honestly, I was raised to think more that scripture told me what to be interested in, and by default I was to do the same for others. Looking into the Greek just a little it seems to me that the emphasis is as much on the “looking to” as the “interests.” It’s a posture of focus, attention and concern for the other person that flows from an experience of Christ.
In our life coach training we go over the essentials to listening well and ways to be sure that we respect and hear someone who is speaking to us. It’s not too hard, and here are a few of the core elements to adopting a posture of attention…
1. Give the speaker your visual attention. Stop looking at other things and letting yourself get distracted.
2. Don’t interrupt. Let the person say what they need or want to say. Silence really is awesome at times! Give the person time to refine their words and hear themselves.
3. Stop creating a response before they even finish speaking. This is a hard one for many of us as we want to argue and begin arguing in our minds before they finish their thought.
I need to be giving respectful attention, making eye contact and communicating my concern with body language. I need to give enough uninterrupted space for the other person to finish sentences and complete their thoughts. I need to release the assumption of needing to change the person, argue with the person or correct the person.
Having listened, I can be creative with ways to better understand what is being said. St. Ignatius taught a principle for listening that basically said I should receive what is said with the “benefit of the doubt” assigning the speaker the best possible intentions and meanings. He said that if I have trouble with what was said, I should ask for clarifications. If what is being said is simply hurtful or negative and there’s no good to be found in it, my response is still charity and love, even if I must give correction or a dissenting view. Listening well and trying to hear the best possible intention in the other person doesn’t presuppose acquiescence, but instead sets the stage for understanding and responding with charity and love.
If you’ve taken a counseling class then you’ve probably learned to ask clarifying questions. We were taught ask questions that clarify meaning and clarify feeling. We don’t want leading questions that presuppose a particular answer, but we want to encourage the greatest level of understanding and sharing. We want to create an open safe space for answering.
To open another piece of scripture from Paul, this seems to be an imminently practical way to live a fulfillment of our shared “debt of love.”
“Give to everyone what you owe: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Romans 13:7-10
I’ll do my best to pay my debts. I’ll look you in the eye and give you the respectful hearing you want and need. If I’m not, poke me on the shoulder and remind me that I owe you more.