1 Samuel 16:7 But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart."
Most of us depend primarily upon our vision, our physical eyesight, to move through our lives effectively and gather information about our surroundings, whereas the unsighted use a combination of hearing, olfaction, and touch to experience their world. Various vocations and avocations compel us to use a specific sense, such as the culinary arts, where we must develop our senses of smell and taste more acutely. Musicians expand their auditory skills. The sense of touch is used by pretty much everyone equally, although surgeons and dentists and any profession or hobby that requires us to hold something is at the top of the list for needing a developed tactile system, which again, is pretty much everyone. For the average person, we so often use sight exclusively that we must train ourselves to use the other senses in order to make them effective. The one I want to examine this week is the sense of hearing, our auditory skills.
We can all develop our senses to a higher level. For instance, I have eyes, but I do not always see. After pouring a glass of milk, I will no longer be able to find the lid. Mary and I say that it has become ‘cloaked’. I do this with keys and most other small objects. They just become invisible to me.
If a policeman and I were to walk into a room full of people, we would see much different things. I would find the exits and a corner to stand in. The officer would see the faces of everyone in the room, what they are wearing, determine if they are armed, and note any suspicious behavior. They would notice the windows, doors, fire extinguishers, and observe any out of the ordinary smells and sounds, picking up dialects, stutters, and other odd quirks. Their ears, as well as eyes, are powerful tools for performing their jobs. Our ears can be our best friends or just odd little appendages on the sides of our heads.
It has been said that ‘to be heard’ is one of humanity’s greatest needs. Beyond the basic physical needs of air, water, food, shelter, and sleep, we also have spiritual and emotional needs. Author Dr. Ralph Nichols wrote, “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” We need appreciation, acceptance, and approval. If we do not have these things, our insides become disheveled. No, I’m not talking about our physical organs; I am speaking about our spiritual natures. If we feel that we are not being heard, that our thoughts do not matter and that our opinions are of no value, then it doesn’t matter how much food and water we have, we start to die a little bit. We feel it inside; a slow withering and diminishing of who we are.
If we are not understood, a quiet desperation builds within us. This can be seen in many of the ways that we reach out, or at times, lash out – through organized protests and suicides, just to name a couple. But we can’t always see this happening to someone. They may be able to put a smile on their face and press forward despite their inner struggle. As humans, we will see what they are showing us and accept it as fact. “They are doing fine. Just look at them!”
But what we see is only part of the story. The other part is what we can’t see but can hear. In order to serve others at a higher level, we must develop our hearing; we need to learn to hear their insides, not just see their outsides. We are not our bodies; we are soul and self and the spiritual nature that resides within the body.
Listening to someone’s insides is not an easy skill to learn. We can easily hear their outside words, “I’m fine, thanks.” But sometimes, if we are really listening, we will hear beyond the words – we will hear traces of the inner skirmish. Over the last few weeks I have discussed Agape love, releasing the small self, developing our spiritual awareness, and rising above the noise of the world. All these attitudes and abilities are required if we are to become good listeners. For some of us, if we are to learn to hear someone’s insides, we need to improve our listening skills.
I’ve heard it said that effective listeners realize that ‘words have no meaning – people have meaning.’ When someone listens to us effectively, we feel accepted, understood, important, valued, and validated. It gives us a voice to help us find our self again. It reminds us that we are not invisible or alone. If we wish to serve at the highest level, we need to listen to people in this manner.
To improve our listening, first of all we must put aside any personal agenda and focus on really listening to understand – to really hear them. Good listeners not only concentrate on the words, they also look for nonverbal communication like pitch, tone, and rhythm. They look for the hidden feelings behind the words, and try to ask leading questions that might inspire, excite, and free them up. Things like, “Tell me more. Can you expand on that a little? How do you feel about this? How would you resolve that?”
The best listeners are nonjudgmental. When we judge someone when they are speaking, the other person often shuts down. Nonjudgmental listening gives the other person a sense of freedom and acceptance. The very best of the best listeners indicate that they resonate with what is said and show through questions and body language that they are interested in hearing about what has been experienced. This means 80 percent of the time we listen patiently without interrupting, and the remaining 20 percent we reflect on what we have heard and ask questions to get more information about the situation.
And we can do this and not agree with their opinion. This is how the deepest levels of communication can happen. We can be open, receptive, and responsive and not share their perspective. When they have said all they can say, and we have encouraged them to share it all, only then can we honestly tell them, “I see where you are coming from. You believe such and such about such and such. I hear you.”
Husbands and wives can be the best soundboard for their mates. To just listen, nonjudgmentally, asking questions, and making sure all the feelings and thoughts have been expressed without the ego wanting to ‘fix’ the situation, is in extraordinary demand. Men, this is one of the most valuable things you can bring to your relationship, because we tend to want to fix things. Just listen attentively and understand. Everyone wants this.
Well Patrick, when do I get to talk? Ah, and there it is … the ego.
If the other person is interested in having a conversation, they will ask you, “So what do you think?” We can then offer our opinion. But I have found that many people do not want to have a dialogue; they want to vent or just formulate opinions as they speak, which is just fine. At these times, we are not there to communicate or participate in their discussion; we are there to serve the other by being a good listener and leaving our ego at home. Creating a clean heart before listening will ensure open communication, and the possibility that we might be heard in return.
No, this is not fun; it is service. It is like volunteering to pick up trash along side the road. It is not fun, but it is something valuable and worthwhile. Actively listening to someone is an act of love, and of great significance.
The challenge is that most of us listen the way it has been modeled by society – to speak from the ego. We don’t really engage as a listener; we engage as a responder. We wait for the other person to finish so we can talk, so that we can share our opinion, or maybe even one-up their story. All the while they are talking, we are ready to pounce, thinking of things to say, planning our strategy. Sometimes we interrupt because we are so anxious to speak. Our own desperation to be heard dominates our thoughts and controls our behavior. We speak uncontrollably at times, hoping that some of what we say will be heard. We unconsciously believe that if we just say enough words, perhaps someone will hear something and then we will matter. Sadly, we often listen from a perspective of need and desperation.
The way we listen affects what is said. Sometimes, if someone does not feel that they are being listened to, they will shut down and stop talking. This happens in marriages, between parents and children, in all business and government dealings; in fact, in nearly every form of verbal communication in every type of relationship.
A research study in the US revealed that on average, within 18 seconds of a patient beginning to speak, the physician interrupts 69% of the time. As a result of the way the doctor is choosing to listen, or not listen in this case, 77% of the time the patient’s true reason for visiting is never brought to light.
Winston Churchill was right when he said, “Speech is silver, and silence is golden”. Or as Roman philosopher, Zeno of Cittium wrote in about 300BC: “We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.”
One of the most powerful allies we can find for peace of mind is someone who will listen to us. Ed Cunningham said, “Friends are those rare people who ask how we are, and then wait to hear the answer.” We are seeking those rare individuals who will hear us and understand us, and while we search for them, can’t we become that person for someone else?
The Bible teaches this lesson in James 1:19 – “Know this, my beloved brothers and sisters: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
It is my prayer that we can develop into the person who will not just listen but will hear what is inside another. We may not ever become perfect listeners, but we can improve and grow more aware, more willing, and more selfless. To be heard is one of humanity’s greatest needs, and therefore becoming the person who lovingly, nonjudgmentally, and actively listens is of immense value to humankind as we continue to expand the means in which we share God’s love with each other.