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A game that nurtures good listening

Lynne Baab • Saturday September 19 2015

A game that nurtures good listening

“How little can you say?” That’s the second piece of advice in a blog post about building relationships through better listening that I wrote about last week. The author suggests that we imagine ourselves playing a game.

The game we all usually play is: How smart can I make myself sound? Bad game. You want the other person to feel good. Let them sound smart. So here’s the game I like to play: How little can I say? The fewer words you speak, the more points you get. The only exception is asking questions when they pause. Don’t be interesting. Be interested.

I like the idea of playing a game to see how little we can say. That would provide good practice in being quiet in conversations to see what we can learn.

The author of the blog post believes that self assurance enables us to stop talking about ourselves, and insecurity makes us talk. Henri Nouwen would agree. In Bread for the Journey, he writes:

To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept.

I like Nouwen’s phrase “interior stability.” There’s no doubt in my mind that interior stability or inner peace helps facilitate listening. The kind of inner tension that might make us talk too much can come from a variety of factors, including anxiety about not knowing what to say if the other person shares something personal or if they talk about something we are totally unfamiliar with or disagree with.

I think there are additional reasons why we often find it hard to stop talking. One factor is simply time. A few sentences of chatter take less time than asking a question and listening at length to the answer. Sometimes, when we have limited time, it’s totally appropriate not to ask questions that might elicit a long answer that we would have to cut off.

Another factor that can nudge us to talk rather than listen is energy. Good listening requires a lot of energy, and sometimes it’s just more energy efficient to chat a little bit and then walk away. Again, this is not all bad. We simply can’t listen intently every moment.

There’s an additional reason for failure to listen that breaks my heart. When I did the interviews for my book on listening, several of the interviewees said that they knew people who had never been listened to. How can we expect people to stop talking and listen if they’ve never had it modeled to them?

If you’re a person who has never been listened to, or if you’re mentoring someone who has never been listened to, then the game of seeing how little you can say might be a good thing to experiment with. I have some other advice for people who are looking for models of good listeners:

1. Read the Gospels. Jesus was a champion listener. Watch for the ways he paid close attention to the people he interacted with. He frequently spoke up and he frequently listened. He knew how to do both, and he is a great model.

2. Watch the pattern of the conversations in your life. Pay attention to conversations when you’re with people you like to be with. In what ways do they listen to you? Also, pay attention to the pattern of conversation with people who are hard to be with. What are their listening habits? I have learned so much from paying attention to the listening practices of people in my life, both good and bad.

3. Consider finding a spiritual director. Again, watch the pattern of listening on the part of your spiritual director and you will learn a lot.

Talking too much is such a common pattern. Even the best listeners fall into it from time to time. As often as you can, think about the challenge: “How little can you say?” And think about these words: “Don’t be interesting. Be interested.”

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Other posts about listening on this blog:
receptivity and listening
humility and listening
humility and listening part 2
listening wisely to people’s stories
my journey as a listener
why do we listen?
letting go of agendas as we listen
hearing God’s voice
an amusing story of why listening matters
“holy curiosity" as a way to think about effective listening
the role of listening in nurturing Christian discipleship
listening and hospitality

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