Listening to What We Hear
A knock on the door, a peek out the window and a groan escapes my lips. “It’s Hershel again,” I said to my mom, with the usual rolling of the eyes, emphasizing our friend’s name with no small amount of disgust.
He was an older man, some acquaintance of my father’s, who would drop by our house occasionally throughout my childhood. His “just dropping by” usually meant an entire afternoon of sitting across from him listening to one story after another – stories of all his latest business dealings, sprinkled heavily with a bit of arrogance and bragging. Any attempt to interject a thought or two was practically ignored.
Grudgingly, we all resigned ourselves to an outward posture of listening, while inwardly we were heaving sighs of disappointment over all the “wasted time” with Hershel. His breath usually smelled of alcohol and he chain-smoked through every visit in our home.
I still picture myself sitting there with a dull bored look, my mind far away playing with my friends, imagining what I was missing in the next chapter of my latest book, or wondering what Gilligan was doing on the island that afternoon. Looking back now, I imagine Hershel was probably an alcoholic and carried many burdens. I sometimes wonder whatever happened to him.
I also wonder if we could have ministered to some of his needs had we demonstrated more warmth and love, instead of the cold tolerance he no doubt sensed. He always came back, though, perhaps desperate for a listening ear. I think we were some of his only friends.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer shares this wonderful truth regarding listening and its relationship to loving:
“The first service one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love of God begins in listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but lends us His ear. So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him.”
There is no more powerful way of demonstrating love for another than by listening. Psalm 34:15 says, “The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry.” Why should we listen to others? Simply and wonderfully, because God listens to us.
Being a good listener opens a window into the heart of another person, enabling us to understand his or her needs, desires, dreams and disappointments more fully. If we begin to understand them, we can then ask God to give us the wisdom to help meet them at the point of their need.
James 1:19 says, “But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.” For some of us, listening must be a conscious discipline of our minds, as well as our mouths. It is so easy to slip into a prattling mode, especially when we are nervous and the other person is exceptionally quiet. We somehow feel the need to fill in all those quiet gaps; and so we do, but sometimes not so wisely. When we focus on the needs of that person sitting before us, it helps take our minds and hearts off our own feelings of discomfort or nervousness. Relax. Breathe deeply. Think about what they are thinking or feeling.
Listening also means being “fully present”. Abraham Lincoln said, “Wherever you are, be all there.” It is a great blessing for someone to feel as if they are the center of your attention – that you are not in a hurry, or thinking about other things, or wishing you were somewhere else. People can sense this.
I envision the good listener in a posture of leaning forward to hear, intentionally, what the speaker is saying – with mind and heart engaged, tuned in, absorbed in every word. Pure listening often enables us to hear beyond the words and begin to understand the heart of the other person. May we be all there for others.
I love this line from the delightful little book, The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley, “’Here’s to Mrs. Mifflin’s health!” said Mr. Chapman, a quiet little man who had a habit of listening to what he heard.”
Listening to what we hear – a simply beautiful gift so worth the giving!
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