If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.
Listen first. Then speak.
That was Jef Fowler’s advice to me early in my employment at Veritas Academy. As I would go to him seeking advice on how to address an issue, whether it was with a student, a teacher or a parent, his counsel always began in the same manner: “Make sure to begin by listening attentively. “
I have to admit that at times, I actually believed I needed to get my opinions out quickly in the event I ran out of time. (I think Jef knew this about me!) I learned, however, that the most important way I can actually help another was to give ample time to attentive listening. This gives the person a chance to sort through their feelings and thoughts as they talk through them. Often what they need most is not my “brilliant” advice but a sounding board by which to think through things themselves and to apply what they already knew to be right to their circumstances.
If I accomplish nothing else, this in and of itself is the most important aspect of these conversations. Furthermore, by first listening attentively, what I actually have to say is far more applicable to their circumstances.
Here’s what Jan Johnson has to say about listening in her inspiring book Invitation to the Jesus Life:
“To listen deeply can be a struggle because we have to let go of our agenda and the need to defend ourselves or the desire to persuade people to see things our way. (Sadly, this agenda-driven method describes some hit-and-run approaches to witnessing today. The all-important witnessing tool of listening has been forgotten.) When we set aside and open our hearts to other people, it’s amazing how we experience Christ-with-us loving them.”
She states that listening can be a greater service than speaking.
“Careful listening allows us to understand the hidden things about people and situations.”
It’s tempting to merely “half listen” to others when feeling impatient or in a hurry. Yet the moment I am fully heard by someone else, I know that I matter, that I am foremost on their minds. Jan Johnson closes her chapter on listening with these powerful words:
“Listening is one of the most basic ways we submit to each other. In fact, listening is minute-by-minute submission to others. I clear away what’s going on in my mind and I follow what others are saying. I ‘die’ to my own desires and ‘live’ to theirs. Loving God and loving others are tied together. Said Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.’ ”
A few tips on becoming an attentive listener:
- Inquire further about what the other person thinks before offering up your opinion.
- As the other person is speaking, keep your thoughts on their words and not on how you want to reply.
- Keep your gaze on the other person instead of looking around (or at your cell phone).
- Examine their body language. Our facial expressions and what we do with our bodies are very telling.
- Pray silently asking God what it is you need to know about this person so that you can best serve them based on the Lord’s perspective and not your own.