Possibly the most transformative book I read in 2017 is Adam S. McHugh’s The Listening Life. Every page was like looking in a mirror; the sentences revealing how little I knew about true listening. McHugh writes
I got serious about listening when I realised I was missing things. Layers of meaning and opportunities for connection lurking near the surface of my relationships, but I wasn’t hearing them, even with those people I loved most. I was skilled at saying wise and empathetic sounding things; I was more skilled at holding people at arm’s-length. Whenever a conversation turned towards emotions, I started looking for an exit.
One of the characteristics of a genuinely good book of this genre is the ability of the author to speak personally in a way that makes us wonder how he was able to write directly to our thoughts and behaviours, while simultaneously speaking from a position of having seen things get better, and sharing a practical path forward to those goals. This is one of those books.
A Brief Review
The question that drives The Listening Life is “how would our relationships change if we approached every situation with the intention of listening first?” McHugh laments how much we have lost the art of listening in our technology-centric, modern convenience, noisy and distracting world. And so the book begins as it should, by laying a foundation for what listening truly looks like: a practice of focused attention. In order to understand ourselves and how we are truly meant to be, chapter two points us directly to our example, Jesus Christ The King Who Listens. Then the book opens up, and McHugh takes an in-depth look at how we approach, listen, and seek to better understand God (chapter 3), Scripture (chapter 4), creation (chapter 5), our neighbours (chapter 6), and our own bodies and emotions (chapter 8) through the discipline of listening. Cultivating this posture of listening not only lies at the heart of a true and mature spirituality, but greatly equips us to better participate in God’s saving mission in the world.
One Profound Takeaway
When it comes to listening to God, Scripture, or creation, I can (usually) find a quiet place and focus. Leaving my phone out of sight and keeping a notepad and pen within arms reach for those nagging thoughts pretty much does the trick. But when it comes to conversations with others, McHugh has shown me just how lazy and unloving I was being without even realising it, and how a little discipline would go such a long way in better emulating the listening Saviour who draws close and listens to me. In his chapter on loving others, he writes about Pushing The Arrow:
Imagine that there is a big arrow hovering over the space between two people engaged in a conversation. It is a very smart, mind-reading arrow, and it swivels to point at whomever the attention in the conversation is focused on. To listen, we remind ourselves, is to pay focused and loving attention on another. So, as the listener in this conversation, your goal is to keep the arrow pointing at the other person for as long as possible. That’s it. Push the arrow toward the interests, needs, and heart of the other person. Encourage the other person to keep talking, to take an idea further, to go deeper into a story, memory, or emotion. Then you are listening. If you remember nothing else from this chapter, remember this.
I was inescapably struck so many times in this chapter by how much I listen in order to respond, to offer advice, to one-up a story, or simply hearing out of obligation (all the while thinking about other things). In the last few weeks, I’ve intentionally entered every conversation with the aim of ‘pushing the arrow’; but not purely for the exercise or social experiment, but because I want to be a person who loves through listening, and you can only reliably listen in the moment if you have become a listening sort of person—someone who has developed a listening heart. When it comes to better loving God and loving others, Adam S. McHugh’s The Listening Life has been the most helpful, most revealing, most profound and practical advice I’ve ever read on how to be a listener, not just someone who occasionally listens.