In our turbulent and busy world, we can easily fall into taking shortcuts in our relationships. We can get so busy, stressed, and rushed that we short-circuit our communications and end up connecting in shallow and cursory ways. And we leave each other feeling unheard, unimportant, and unloved.
It’s essential that we learn to slow down and listen thoroughly to one another, bringing openness and curiosity into our interactions so that we can deepen our relationships. If we truly seek to love others, then listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give. And that’s why learning to love listening and learning to listen as an act of loving are essential spiritual practices.
In this episode, we continue exploring how we can be better at loving others. We look at how we can bring ourselves more thoroughly into our interactions and connections with others. And we will be focussing on the important role that listening—attentively and wholeheartedly—plays in our relationships.
Many years ago I heard this story about a well-known preacher, and I don’t remember exactly who it was, but he was going through a very busy season and so he wasn’t home much. One evening he did manage to get home for dinner and as the meal was coming to an end his daughter, who was very young at the time, came up to him and said “Daddy, I want to tell you something! But I’ll tell you quickly.” And he looked at her feeling a little taken aback at what she had said, and he responded “But love, you don’t have to tell me quickly, you can tell me slowly.” And she said “Okay Daddy, I’ll do that. But then you have to promise that you will listen slowly.” It was in that moment that he realised that he hadn’t been bringing his whole self into his interactions, into his relationships with his family, and that he really needed to hear what she was saying and learn to listen and be with them more slowly.
I’m convinced that most misunderstandings in relationships are the result of incomplete interaction, interactions that are not processed thoroughly, or that we are unable to close the loop on for various reasons. And some of those reasons have been put together into an acronym that you’ve probably heard of before: H.A.L.T. – halt – which is again a word that tells us to halt, to slow down, to listen, to interact more slowly. Those letters stand for Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired. We struggle to interact completely and thoroughly when we are hungry, when we are angry, when we are lonely and when we are tired. And so we need to be aware of those halt-elements in our relationships.
But I want to suggest that there may be another two that we need to add onto that acronym. They don’t fit the acronym so just kind of add them maybe in brackets afterwards. But it’s when we are too Stressed, when we are trying to focus on too much input simultaneously. And then when we are too Rushed, when we’re trying to move through the interaction too quickly. When we’re hungry, angry, lonely, tired, stressed or rushed, our relationships break down, our communication breaks down and misunderstandings and conflict begins to happen. Think of one of your primary relationships. When do fights and arguments happen most often for you? What are the factors that contribute to these conflicts? Is it mostly the things we’ve been talking about? And so what response would you like to make to try and change these factors?
And it’s important that we do change them, because the consequences of incomplete interactions are disastrous for our relationships, because of the misunderstandings and the conflict that arrises. And so one of the most powerful and life-giving gifts we can give to one another is the gift of being heard. When we focus, when we’re attentive, when we are open, and when we listen slowly, that is one of the best gifts of love we can possibly give to another person. I remember when I first became a father, and I’ve probably mentioned this before in the EvoFaith Tribe, I wanted to make sure that my kids still wanted a relationship with me when they grew up. I remember saying to myself “If my kids hit 21 and they are still talking to me, I’ll consider that I’ve done an okay job as a father.” Well I’m glad to say that my kids are both grown up and adult, and they are still talking to me, and so I’m very grateful for that. What I didn’t realise was that the amount of listening it would take to make sure that my children kept talking to me throughout their lives was way more than I had ever expected!
But once we reach this place of making a habit of listening slowly, of interacting thoroughly and completely, then our relationships become creative and inspiring and energising. But of course we have to make sure that our listening, and also our communicating, are thorough and complete. We’ll talk a bit more about the communication aspect of that equation in the next episode of this podcast, but for today we are going to focus especially on listening.
So what do we need if we are to listen well as an act of love? In a moment I’ll share some suggestions, but first I’d like to take a quick moment to invite you to subscribe, to like, to activate notifications, and to share this podcast as widely as you can, on whatever platform you’re engaging with it. If you find this podcast helpful, then others may too, and it certainly helps the podcast when the word gets spread. So thank you so much for doing that.
So how do we listen well? How do we love listening? And how do we listen as an act of loving? I think we need to realise first of all that there are two types of listening, or at least two. There’s an aggressive kind of listening. It’s a listening that begins with the conclusion, that listens from an agenda. It’s the kind of listening where our ears play “good cop” and make the person think we’re listening, but our heart and mind play “bad cop” jumping on any evidence that they give us to support our conclusion, and to prove them wrong. We’re not trying to learn from them, we’re trying to win a victory over them. This is listening that is closed-minded, it’s rigid, it’s certain, and the aim is to win the argument, to win a victory.
But then there’s another kind of listening, what I call learning listening. Listening to learn. It turns both the ears and the heart to the other person’s story. It’s where we listen to learn something new, to be changed and to allow the other person to have an impact on us while also letting them know that they really are truly being heard. It’s listening that is flexible and open and uncertain, in the sense that we’re not coming into the interaction with certainty, but with an openness, with questioning, with curiosity. And the aim is not to win a victory, but to win a deeper relationship. It’s too easy for us to slip into aggressive listening, even if we’re not meaning to be aggressive. And it takes some awareness and some intentionality to ensure that we listen to learn. But listening to learn is where the magic is for our relationships.
And when we bring two attitudes into our listening it helps us to listen to learn more readily. And the first is restraint. Often when we’re listening, we can’t wait to jump in with our own ideas, our own story, our own perspectives. But restraint is about saying “I’m not going to do that. I’m going to focus on the other. I’m going to hear what they’re saying on their terms. I’m going to let them tell their story and I’m going to avoid introducing my story, except perhaps where it can help with some solidarity—and then a sentence, maybe two. And then I’m back to listening to what they want to say.” We give the gift of valuing the story of the other person in and of itself, without feeling that we have to add to it, or shape it in any way. And we seek to let them know that we have entered into their world, we’re not forcing them to come into ours. So that’s the attitude of restraint.
And then with that, there’s an attitude of self-reflection, where we listen with more than just our ears, but we listen in a way that helps us to be aware of our own internal “resonances”. Where we’re listening with other parts of ourselves—with our hearts, with our guts, with our bodies even. Where we connect not just with the words, but with the deeper meanings, with the subtexts of the interaction. And where we seek to bring these other forms of knowing, these other forms of engaging, these other forms of listening into the conversation, for the sake of the other.
You will know what it’s like when you telling your story to someone, and yes they’re listening, they could quote every word back to you, but they haven’t really engaged, it hasn’t moved them, it hasn’t touched them, it hasn’t connected with them. And you can come away from that feeling unheard, but you’re not sure why because they got the words, but somehow they didn’t connect. It can be really helpful when we allow ourselves to listen with our whole selves, because that’s when that connection happens.
You may want to try an exercise sometime this week. Find somebody that you could do this with and just take one minute to share your life story with them. Share in as much detail as possible in a minute, and let the other person into your feelings and experience as far or as little as you are comfortable. But notice how you feel when they’re listening. Seek to create an effective container, a space for you to talk, and then the listener; invite them to attempt to apply the attitudes of standing with you, of being restrained and of reflecting on what’s going on in themselves as they listen. And feel free to ask questions to each other. And do it both ways—you share your story, let them share their story—and as you do that using these attitudes and the stance of standing together, reflect on how it feels to be listened to in that way. And then maybe chat afterwards about what the listening process was like for you. How did you feel when you were sharing? How did you feel when you were listening? And what did you learn from this small exercise? I really invite you to try that this week and see how it feels.
One of the ways we do want to interact when we’re listening of course is in asking questions. Now there’s always the danger that our questions become like an interrogation, we don’t want to go there. But we do want to ask questions that help us to communicate that we’re listening well and we’re listening actively, but also questions that help us to listen better. Questions that are clarifying questions, that seek to gather as much data as possible from the person. It’s about getting the facts, or getting the story, as thoroughly as possible—not just through our senses, but through our emotions and feelings, and through our impressions as they are communicating with us. So we want to ask the questions that help us to clarify, to enter into the story and to feel like we’re part of that story.
We want to ask understanding questions, questions that help us make sense of what they’re saying, that help us to interpret the meaning of the data or the story they’re giving us, exploring the implications. We spoke about systems a few weeks ago, becoming aware of those systems that are at work. Listening for the change that the person is seeking or the change that is in process in their story. Possibly seeing what the consequences are of what they’re telling us, or what obstacles they may have encountered. Things that help us understand more thoroughly what we’re being told.
So we want to ask clarifying questions, we want to ask understanding questions, we also want to ask encouraging questions. Questions that invite them to share more. Questions that help us to explore ways that we can respond in helpful ways, and ways that we can maybe help them find their own solutions if there’s a problem that they’re dealing with, or make sense in their own way of the story they’re telling. Helping them to identify the resources that they need or the resources that are available to them. Actions they may want to take. Other people involved who could be motivated or engaged or cooperated with. Just questions that can help them to perhaps see their story in a different light.
I remember once sitting with a counsellor and telling the story of my conversion. And through this kind of questioning, the counsellor helped me to see that there was psychological things happening in my story of coming to faith that I hadn’t been aware of—dynamics in my family, dynamics in my life at school—all of which put me in a position that opened me to faith and that made faith something I needed in a way that I may not have otherwise. And it helped me to understand that process of coming to faith in a much more practical and realistic and helpful way. And that new understanding of faith moved me into a whole new journey of spiritual development and growth that I’m still on today. And I’m very grateful for those questions that helped me to have that experience.
And again you can try this with others. Get into a group or get into a one-on-one interaction and try out some questions with each other, and let each other know which questions where most helpful and which ones weren’t. Which ones helped to further the story and open you up to greater interaction and greater sharing, and which ones kind of shut the interaction down.
Listening is loving. It is one of the most profound and healing gifts we can give to another. But it requires us to listen actively, seeking to enter into the other person’s world and learn from them, and utilising helpful and caring questioning to ensure that our listening leads to understanding, but also leads to a deeper connection. And when we listen like that, others know that they are heard and they know that they are loved.
In the next episode we’re going to talk about engaging proactively, taking responsibility for our communication, our speaking, our sharing. We’re going to learn to speak the different kinds of languages that impact every relationship—and I’m not speaking about English versus French versus Zulu! I’m speaking about different ways that we frame our stories, we frame our communication. We’re going to look at that next week.
But that’s all for now. Thank you for listening. Thank you for watching. And I’ll catch you next time!
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