Listening Is Counterintuitive

 “I just listened, without interruption.”

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. James 1:19, 20

Genuine listening is a virtue. Very few are good at it today, but when you come across one who is, you generally value their friendship. I was asked by my good friend David Sanford to read the manuscript of his book Loving Your Neighbor: Surprise! It’s Not What You Think. I was captivated by the idea that much of how we should be relating to neighbors is counterintuitive, that is, contrary to our intuition or common sense. Listening to neighbors, without interrupting them during the flow of their story is certainly different than what we normally do in conversation. We tend to want to interject something. For instance, when they are sharing something about themselves we like to say something like this, “That reminds me of __________.” Or, “I had that same experience.” We think we are relating to what they are saying, but actually we are hijacking their story to talk about ourselves or something that we think is more significant than what they are saying. When we allow them to tell their whole story without interrupting we speak volumes to them. We are communicating that what they are saying is important, in fact, we are communicating that they have worth. Listening is a door into a person’s heart. David Sanford answers the following significant question in his chapter on listening: “How do we get today’s generation interested in God’s stories?  By genuinely being interested in hearing their stories. Loving by listening. And listening some more. Without saying anything. Not a word.” This chapter on listening spoke to me and here’s what happened the following day.

Lynn and Jo Cory’s Neighborhood

The next morning, I walked out my front door. My neighbor, Michael, walked out his front door at the very same time. So, I walked across the street. We were standing on his sidewalk chatting for a few minutes. Then, during the course of our spontaneous conversation, Michael started to tell me at length about his wife’s upbringing, her family, and much more. I thought about what I had read from David’s book the day before. Instead of doing what I might normally have done, I did what was counterintuitive. I just listened, without interruption. I didn’t interject my own comments or try to identify with the story. So, Michael completely opened up and shared his wife’s whole story in detail. It took nearly an hour. When he was done, Michael said, “Lynn, thanks for listening to my story.” I could tell it really meant a lot to him. Then Michael corrected himself. “Actually, that wasn’t my story. That was Barbara’s story.” I replied, “Michael, the next time we get a chance to talk, I’d like to hear your story.”

A time for reflection:

That experience was very confirming that when we listen, people open up like a flower and really express what’s on their hearts. If we interrupt, however, it stops the flow of what they’re saying. Listening is a discipline. It isn’t easy to do. We think we have something equal or better to say, or we want to ask a question. But our neighbor isn’t ready to be questioned. He or she is in the flow of thought. So, we need to let them keep talking until it’s all out. David is right. This is very counterintuitive. Granted, there’s a place to ask questions. Then when the answer starts to come, we need to quiet down, and let them talk until they’ve said everything they want to say. I walked away from the conversation with Michael confident that he felt heard, and that he would be willing to talk again. Why? Because I was willing to listen and not interrupt him. In our day, we have to pay big bucks to hire a counselor to listen to us without interrupting. Other people aren’t willing to listen like that. They really aren’t. That’s the secret. I think when we listen, people are more vulnerable and willing to open up and talk if they know they have someone who genuinely cares enough to listen to them. Let’s do just that! Do you find yourself hijacking other people’s stories or have you experienced others interrupting you when you share yours? The next time someone begins to share their story, practice the discipline of listening. Like a muscle, the more you exercise it the better and stronger it gets.

(Much of this chapter on listening and my story is taken from David Sanford’s book Loving Your Neighbor: Surprise! It’s Not What You Think.)

Listen to Bruce Zachary's experience with Neighborhood Initiative.

Listen to Dallas Willard's word to pastors and leaders about Neighborhood Initiative.

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