Listening is much harder than I originally thought. It is more important, too.
Growing up, I always took good notes in class. I could remember the words that teachers used and reproduce them at the appropriate times. I could track what regular people said, remembering both words and content. In fact, in the early years of our marriage, I was such a good listener that I could watch TV and simultaneously hear, remember and reproduce what Lynne was telling me. I don’t know how many times in our 35 years she has been frustrated or hurt that I wasn’t listening, when in fact, I was. So when my wonderful wife would tell me, on more than a few occasions, that I wasn’t a good listener, I didn’t understand. After all, I could tell her exactly what she had just said.
Now it has been a few years since then. Sometimes I still try to listen while checking my phone or opening the bills… but somewhere along the way, God or Lynne taught me that the art of listening involves more relationship than information. Someone feels heard/listened to when you are present with them, listening with your eyes, your body and your heart as well as your ears. Years ago a Young Life mentor told me that people communicate in over 450 ways other than verbal. I remember being astonished. This was trickier than I had first believed. So I tried harder…
Somewhere along the way, I found myself listening so well that I could catch Lynne’s words better than she could. We would be talking about something, usually something that had some tension involved, and I would “catch” what she said. “So, you just said…”, I would say. When I would point out those “catches,” she would say “that’s not what I meant.” “Aha,” I would say, “But it’s what you said.” “But it’s not what I meant…”
Was that listening well? Hmmm… probably not. So listening is not just presence. It involves the attitude and desire to hear, not simply what is said, but what is actually meant. How often do I find myself listening carefully but crafting my reply or creating my counter-argument? I am listening, but not really. I am understanding, but not in the way that you would want. I am present, but in an oppositional stance rather than collaborative. So listening well requires that I be “for” you, not against you. I need to want to understand what you are trying to communicate and want to give you a sense of truly being known and understood.
But then there are the moments when what is said is not even true. My friend walks into Brueggers for breakfast and I ask, “How are you?” “Fine”, he says. But he doesn’t look fine. “How was your weekend?” I ask. “Great,” he says. But he doesn’t look great. What does one do with that? Well, if I am “for” him, present with him in the moment, I might be able to say… “I sure might be wrong here, but you don’t look like it was great… was it really?”
I can’t tell you how many times those closest to me have helped me to discover what was really going on inside of me. I was communicating it, but not with my words. In fact, my words said the opposite of what was true. Those questions really helped me to know moments where I needed more of God and made me grateful for people who listened to more than my words.
A good listener gives someone the gift of being known. It requires attention, presence, listening to what someone is trying to say and then sometimes listening to what they are saying with their presence rather than what they say with their words. A good listener gives the gift of love. And the neat thing is that it doesn’t have to be about a big deal. A good listener can love well in the midst of life’s mundane moments. After all, we all want to be known and loved, seen and understood, engaged with and pursued… in the ordinary and not just in the extraordinary.
I am still learning this art. I am grateful that I have some really good teachers, who both model listening and catch me lovingly when I don’t do it well. I am not very artistic… but I think I am getting better at this, a little bit at a time.
Palmer Trice is an ordained Presbyterian minister. He is married to Lynne, has three children and has been in Charlotte since 1979. In his spare time, Palmer enjoys golf, tennis, walking and reading.