Listening is something of a lost art which needs to be recaptured, retaught, and reapplied in our relationships with God and with others; both because it will greatly improve our quality of life, and because it lies at the heart of what it means to be like the God who Himself listens to us.
In his book The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction, Adam S. McHugh talks about listening as one of the best gifts we can both give and receive. At the time of writing this I’m six chapters in to his book and already I’ve been encouraged and challenged (see part one) in many ways with regard to listening to God, to Scripture, to my emotions, and to others.
Today, I want to explore what it looks like to be a bad listener, because I saw myself in many of these categories and I’ve learned that active listening is a whole lot more involved than simply paraphrasing and returning what someone has said, or asking open-ended questions (however good the intention).
Here are a few of the usual suspects in the ongoing case of bad listening:
The One-up. “You think that’s something? Let me tell you about what happened to me last week!” Here the listener sits quietly through the other person’s story only to try to trump them with a better, more interesting story. It’s a competition more than a conversation.
The Sleight-of-hand. “Uh huh, that’s great. But what I really want to talk to you about is…” Listening lulls the speaker into a false sense of security so that they don’t see the trick coming, namely, what the speaker’s agenda is for the conversation.
The Inspector. “Didn’t you say last week that…” The listener asks a series of questions, usually closed-ended questions, in a way that feels like a detective questioning a suspect, trying to lure him into a confession. Listening is the lightning before the thunder, the burning fuse before the bomb.
The Reroute. “That reminds me of…” The listener takes the topic the speaker has addressed and rolls it over, however clumsily, into the topic she wants to talk about or the story she wants to tell. Nothing will stop her from talking about what she came to talk about.
The Projector. “I’m totally dealing with the same thing!” The listener projects his problems onto the speaker, and then projects his solutions onto the speaker’s problems. The projector sees himself in every conversation.
The Interrogation. “What do you think about….? What is your favourite…? Why are you moving to…?” The listener gets wind of the idea that listening is about asking questions, which is good, but then peppers the speaker with them like a game of dodgeball, which is bad. Here we learn that questions, as helpful as they can be, can also be very controlling, and that they can be vehicles for the questioner’s agenda.
The Password. “Cheese. I had the best cheese at a dinner party with the mayor last week!” The listener sits quietly through the speaker’s conversation, but then seizes on one word that she uses, amid a sea of paragraphs, and treats it as a password that unlocks a whole new conversation. The original context has no bearing on where the password takes you. It sounds funny, but it happens more than you might think. The password sentence usually starts with “Speaking of…”
The Hijack. You have to give the listener credit with this one: at least he’s honest and doesn’t even pretend to use what the speaker said as a stepping stone. He refrains from speech while the other person talks and then just starts talking about whatever is on his mind, as though they are two deaf ships passing in the night. I’m reminded of a quote I heard once that says most people do not dialogue; they perform a monologue in the presence of another person.
The Mechanic. “Here is what you need to do.” This person listens like a mechanic listens to a sputtering engine, trying to diagnose the problem so she can fix it. Contrary to popular cultural thinking, both men and women are guilty of this one.
The Bone of Contention. “I disagree with that!” There are an unfortunate number of listeners who listen specifically for what they disagree with. Ask a pastor what people talk to him about after a sermon if you don’t believe me. Even if they agree with 99 percent of what a person says, they will pounce on the 1 percent they don’t agree with, and in doing so they ignore what is significant to the speaker.
The Deflector. “Yeah but you…” This one is a refuge for people who have a hard time receiving criticism, which, let’s be honest, is all of us. Someone offers us feedback, so we quickly return the favour without taking the time to absorb what he said.
The Boomerang Question. “Did you have a good weekend? Because I…” Here a person asks a question of another person with the true intention of answering it herself. The question goes out and then boomerangs back. If you know the answer to your own question, you probably shouldn’t ask it. Sometimes when I get a boomerang question, I’ll respond, “Why don’t you just tell me how your weekend went?” ?That usually gets my message across.
If I am “listening” in such a way that the speaker has to make an abrupt shift in focus over to me, then I’m not doing it right. I’ve learned that a good listener must be ruthless in pushing away the ever-present temptation to make the conversation about them. Good Listening always denies the natural selfishness of their own human heart and instead imitates the self-emptying attitude of Jesus who gave his life in love.
Today’s post was adapted from chapter six of Adam S. McHugh’s book The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction.