Before continuing this series let me say a word about context. Clearly not all social interaction is the same – sometimes we are just ‘passing the time of day’ together, at others we are in deep discussion looking for a consensus view. Also, there are counselling and negotiating contexts. Each requires different skills which are too specific to open up here. I am merely trying to give some general guidelines that apply in many contexts.
So far we have seen that a good listener honours the speaker. We have also touched on some of the hindrances to good listening. Let’s now look at some of the ways in which we can listen.
‘Listen with your ears’? What a stupid statement! How else am I supposed to listen? That’s what ears are for! In due course I will try to help you to learn how to listen with your eyes and with your mouth, but for now we will concentrate on what we hear.
What are you really saying?
I am sure we have all been in conversations when we are not convinced that the words being said are revealing the true essence of what is on the speaker’s heart. Sometimes we have to ‘read between the lines’ of what is being said and guess at what lies underneath. A classic example of this is in the greeting ‘How are you?’ ‘I’m fine!’ Yet, looking at the person you can see that he or she is anything but ‘fine’. So, do you leave it with that answer or risk saying ‘No, how are you really?’, knowing that that may open up a tale of woes?
But if you really care and honour the speaker that is exactly what you should be doing. He may be longing for someone to listen to him.
Recently, as I was going into a local supermarket I spotted someone sitting on the pavement (sidewalk) with his dog – clearly someone who was homeless. In the supermarket I bought a hot drink and some food, and returned to him. When I asked him how he was doing he did not, at first, want to self-disclose; but he was genuinely grateful for the sustenance I brought to him. As I knelt on the pavement beside him (it is important to be at eye level with someone or you can appear to be ‘lording it over them’) and asked a few more questions his story came tumbling out – redundancy, broken marriage, sleeping in a tent to avoid being in a hostel with alcoholics etc. By taking time I was able to get ‘under the surface’ of his initial response.
Often time is what people want from you, not good counsel or trite quotes from the Bible. Someone who is a good listener makes it clear that they are there for you, available for as long as it takes to really hear what you are saying. They are not constantly looking at their watch trying to find a way to end the conversation. Clearly there are practicalities of life that can intrude on this availability – but you get the message!
In the instance above I referred to kneeling down to be able to look someone in the eye without giving the impression of being superior. Next time I will share the importance of listening with our eyes.