To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.
–Proverbs 18:13

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, . . .
–James 1:19

Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker. When someone receives us with open- hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening, our spirits expand.
–Sue Thoele

Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart.
–Nhat Hanh

Dear Munchkins,

Most people don’t listen very well. As Stephen Covey put it, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

I want you to be different. I want you to be the kind of person who offers others the “compassionate listening” Nhat Hanh talks about, the kind of listening that helps “relieve the suffering of another person” and helps them to “empty their heart.”

I grew up hearing the saying, “God gave you two ears and one mouth because He wants you to listen more than you talk.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that statement.

At the same time, if God had really wanted to drive home the point that we’re to listen more than we talk, He would have given us fifty ears and one mouth. Fifty ears would have made all of us unpleasant to look at, so God cut us a lot of slack when He didn’t go to that extreme to emphasize listening over talking. We need to thank Him for that.

Theologian Paul Tillich said, “The first duty of love is to listen.” When we listen to others, we’re loving them in one of the most important ways possible. Even when we can’t do anything to help a person directly resolve their troubles, just the fact that we listened in a deep and compassionate manner helps them more than we know.

Munchkins, I want to give you some specific tips on how to be a better listener and encourage you to work on these interpersonal skills the rest of your life.

  1. Maintain good eye contact. Look into a person’s eyes when you’re talking to them, not at the top of their shoes. As pediatrician Thomas Phaer observed, “The eyes are the windows of the soul,” and we would be wise to look into people’s eyes as a deeper way to hear their soul.
  2. Remove all distractions and don’t multi-task when you’re listening to others. Turn the television off, put your cell phone away, and don’t work on getting more things done. Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck wisely noted, “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”
  3. Avoid judging what people say. Accept people’s thoughts and feelings as is, whether you agree with them or not. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is right to say, “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating.”
  4. Don’t try to fix or solve people’s problems. We are to “Bear one another’s burdens” along the way (Galatians 6:2), but “each person must carry their own load” (Galatians 6:5) by facing their problems if they want to grow into a full-fledged adult. Returning again to M. Scott Peck’s insightful observations, “It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually. It is through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we learn.”
  5. Ask probing, clarifying questions. Don’t assume you understand what others are saying, ask them to tell you what they’re thinking and feeling from as many different angles as possible. As psychiatrist Arthur Bloch noted, “Every clarification breeds new questions,” and facilitates a deeper understanding of the inner experience of the person you’re listening to.
  6. Try to feel what the other person feels. It’s called “empathy,” and it means walking in the other person’s shoes to feel what they’re feeling. Try it, you’ll like it. Psychologist Marshall Rosenburg defined empathy as “a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing” and that it “calls upon us to empty our mind and listen to others with our whole being.”
  7. Pay attention to non-verbal clues. Experts say the vast majority of interpersonal communication is non-verbal (facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, posture, body language). We need to pay special attention to this aspect of interacting with others. Physicist Leonard Mlodinow suggests, “Nonverbal communication forms a social language that is in many ways richer and more fundamental than our words.”
  8. Listen for what’s underneath the person’s words. What people mean and the things they don’t say are more important than what they say. Organizational scientist Peter Senge notes, “To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words.”

Munchkins, when you’re with others, try to make listening to them deeply and compassionately your top priority. In a world of 8 billion people, many are starving to death for someone to listen to them and care about what they’re going through. When you’re in the presence of another human being, make sure you give them your full, undivided attention and offer them a compassionate and understanding heart.

Well, that’s enough advice for now. You munchkins are the best thing since sliced bread.

Love,
Pop