How to Listen

The relationship between memory and need is common; whether we are conscious of it or not, memorable experiences are often those consisting of situations  where needs are being met; physical, emotional, spiritual, and so on. Most of us can remember the conversations we’ve had in life that have had great impact on us. We value the memories of deep connectivity because our very basic need as humans is connectivity. One of the ingredients required to achieve connectivity is active listening, an aspect of communication that has been seemingly lost in our day.

Listening requires great skill, and like every skill, it requires considerable practice. Its role, not only for the pastor, but for all human relationships, carries substantial weight with regards to effective communication. Before discussing what listening is, we must acknowledge what listening is not.

The key to being able to listen well is to be aware of communication roadblocks. “Roadblocks” are examples of what listening is not; they are responses from the listener that become obstacles impeding the listener’s ability to listen effectively. They are normally employed with good intent, but instead have the effect of interrupting what the speaker wants to say.  The roadblocks come in the following forms:

1.Ordering, directing, or commanding. I.e. ‘don’t say that!’

2.Warning or threatening. I.e. “You’d better start treating him better or you’ll lose him..”

3.Giving advice, making suggestions, providing solutions. I.e. “Have you tried…?”

4.Persuading with logic, arguing, lecturing.  I.e. “the facts are that…”

5.Moralizing, preaching, telling them their duty. I.e. “Your duty as a …”

6.Judging, criticizing, disagreeing, blaming. I.e. “You’re wrong”

7.Agreeing, approving, praising. I.e. “I think you’re right…”

8.Shaming, ridiculing, name-calling. I.e. “That’s really stupid”

9.Interpreting, analyzing. I.e. “Do you know what your real problem is…?”

10.Reassuring, sympathizing, consoling. I.e. “It’s going to work out alright”

11.Questiong, probing.  I.e. “what makes you feel that way?”

12.Withdrawing, distracting, humoring, changing the subject. I.e. “look on the bright side…”

So, what is listening?

To listen is to actively seek to grasp the facts and the feelings of the speaker. The listener’s endeavour is to help the speaker gain a clearer understanding of his or her own situation. Active listening requires responses that make it clear that the listener appreciates both the meaning and the feeling behind what the speaker is saying.

Before providing an interpretation of what is being heard, or offering any of the other “roadblocks” listed above, the listener should employ what one author calls, “reflective listening” (Miller). “Active” or “reflective” listening involves mirroring/reflecting the speaker’s internal processes – thoughts, feelings, insights, and conflicts. A silent response, therefore, may be considered ‘listening’ (and is sometimes the appropriate response), but it does not constitute active listening.

The attitude underlying reflective listening is one that gives the implicit message that the client is accepted; to “accept is to give all your attention and energy to the process of understanding what the person means and to reflect that meaning back to the person accurately.” The first step to this process requires the acknowledgment that what is being said can easily be misinterpreted.

In fact, one author claims that “one potential pitfall in paraphrasing [ie reflective listening] is to leap too far” which in turn can become a roadblock through an interpretation, and thus the speaker can feel analyzed and lose his/her direction. Based on the feedback of the speaker, you will know if you ‘reflected’ well.

Now you know how to listen actively, but as mentioned, this is a skill that requires practice, and practice requires patience. Give it a try.