How about this: “…be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:19). This was the first bit in the whole Bible that I memorized. I remember, when I was 12, that my grandma was visiting and she was doing laundry. She called me into the kitchen when I came home from playing soccer and said, “What’s this?” as she held the crumpled paper, rescued from my jeans, in her old, old, hand. I was speechless, and even a little embarrassed because kids don’t write Bible verses on scraps of paper and memorize them. But I did – just that once.
“This,” I remember thinking, “sounds like a good way to live.” Already, by 6th grade, I was discovering that my gender was making it’s way in the world by bragging, which meant when somebody was telling a story, your job was to think through the small rolodex of your 12-year-old brain and find a better story or, if you didn’t have one, stretch one to make it better, or even make one up, so that you came out faster, funnier, richer, stronger, or whatever. Listening was out. Reacting was in. Walking away from conflict was out, getting mad was in. Getting “in” by playing according to these rules was wearing me out.
Then along comes this little verse, either in church or Sunday school or maybe even boring family devotions, I can’t remember: quick to hear and slow to anger. It sounded liberating, life giving. Shortly after that I found another bit in the Bible that says “even a fool is considered wise if he keeps his mouth shut” (my paraphrase of the real thing, found here). If you think James is on to something, try these practical tips for listening:
1. Shut your electronics off, or ignore them, when talking with someone. When I see someone checking their e-mail on their phone while I’m talking with them, I get annoyed and I think: “The real way to get you to listen to me is to e-mail you.” That is, of course, absurd. The best communication is always, always, face to face, because we communicate with much more than words.
2. Listen with your whole person. In our fragmented world, we’ve grown accustomed to divided minds, and so real listening is hard to do. Because we talk slower than we think, the listener can easily go five or six other places while “listening” but much is lost by this lust for efficiency. Eyes, ears, mind, heart – everything should be engaged in what the other is saying.
3. Seek to understand before seeking to be understood. This is part of the famous prayer of St. Francis, and if we’d apply it in our lives, our relationships would be much richer. Too often we label the other while listening: “liberal,” “heretic,” or whatever else we need to say in order to summarize quickly so that we can pull the right response out of our hat. Folks did that with Jesus all the time. They’d listen to him, and before he was finished talking, have him sewn into a tidy “heresy” box, or “blasphemy” box, so that they decided to kill him. They thought they knew the Bible because they read it all time, but they didn’t listen to Jesus, and so missed the point completely.
Listening is related to the spiritual discipline of silence, which you can read about here, or in more depth here. When we practice silence, we learn to listen–to the voice of God as he speaks to our hearts, to the hymn of creation as we hear the praise of the trees and even the stars, and to the heart of the “other” with whom we work, or pray, or love, or serve. I’d argue that without a little practice of solitude, learning to listen will be hard. Go there, though, and life becomes richer fast, as the fog clears and real relationships grow.
What are the challenges of listening for you?
Can you share ways you’ve learned to listen better?
Why is silence so hard in our culture?