Friendship, Listening, and Empathy: A Prayer GuideTwo Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian LifeSabbath Keeping FastingA Renewed SpiritualityNurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationPersonality Type in CongregationsPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathFriendingA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthDeath in Dunedin: A NovelDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: The most important listening skill

Lynne Baab • Wednesday November 29 2023

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: The most important listening skill

Here are three listening scenarios. See if you resonate with any of them.

1. You are shopping for groceries and run into a former neighbor who you used to like a lot. They pause with their shopping basket, and you chat with them for a few minutes. You know you can’t talk long because you need to get home to do a few things. The entire time you are catching up with this kind and interesting person, you feel inner pressure to get moving.

2. A close friend is telling you about marriage challenges. You have heard permutations of this story many times before. This time, you know they’re in counseling so you’re interested in hearing what they’re learning. You know this is a central issue in your friend’s life, and you want to be supportive. However, as your friend continues to talk, so many issues sound familiar from previous conversations. You find your mind wandering to your own challenges and then to your to-do list for the day.

3. Your colleague is telling you about a recent vacation they spent in a place where you visited a few years ago. Your mind is full of memories, and you can’t wait for them to pause so you can describe the time you visited there.

A dozen years ago, I conducted more than 60 interviews for my book on listening, and I was quite surprised at how often the subject of wandering minds came up. Many of my interviewees talked about how hard it is to concentrate on what others are saying because their mind is filled with what they need to do, their own challenges, what they want to say next, or even judgmental thoughts about what the other person is saying. Several interviewees used the term “inner noise” to describe this phenomenon.

Soon after I finished the interviews, I talked with a therapist friend who was teaching in a counseling program. I told him about some of the patterns in my interviews and asked his advice about this “inner noise” problem. He said that in the counseling program where he taught, a major topic of the first semester was helping the students learn to recognize and deal with inner noise. Of course, I was eager to hear about what they teach the students.

Recognizing inner noise requires acknowledging that we all experience it. Inner noise is a normal part of conversing. Of course, our minds respond to what we’re hearing. We often think we’re unkind or not good at listening because our minds shoot all over the place when people talk. This is normal — nothing to be ashamed of.

My friend said that he teaches counseling students to image a parking lot. Whenever their mind goes down a track that is not productive while trying to listen, he recommends viewing that thought as a car. We can imagine parking that car on the distant side of the parking lot.

Sometimes, parking the car removes it from our minds. Other times, perhaps later in the conversation, we may choose to drive one of those cars back into our consciousness and say something about it. If it doesn’t become appropriate to talk about the idea in one of the cars, and if the idea doesn’t go away, we may want to do some journaling or pondering after the conversation to try to figure out why that idea didn’t want to go away. Why was it so important to us that we couldn’t let it go?

Some writers on listening use the language of “double listening.” We listen to the other person, and we also listen to ourselves. We acknowledge inner noise and send it off to the far side of our imaginary parking lot, or we think carefully about when to mention our thoughts. We also pay attention to the thoughts and emotions that we’re experiencing so we know how to listen wisely. Our perceptions help us recognize which listening skills to deploy, whether or not we should tell a story from our own life that resonates with the other person’s story, or which emotions the other person is conveying that we want to reflect back to them. Good listening requires that we pay attention to what’s happening inside ourselves so we can either park some thoughts elsewhere or gain information from our thoughts and emotions to guide our listening.

This sounds straightforward, but most good listeners find dealing with inner noise to be very challenging. We need God’s help to recognize the patterns in our listening, and we need God’s help in conversations to pause and acknowledge inner noise. We need the Holy Spirit’s guidance about what to do with our thoughts and feelings when we listen. Do we park them? Mention them briefly? Allow them to guide us into appropriate listening skills?

Jesus, we can only begin to imagine the thoughts and feelings you experienced when you talked with so many individuals as described in the Gospels. Please help us grow in perceiving what’s going inside us when we listen. Give us the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit to respond well to the thoughts and feelings we notice. Help us grow as listeners so we can show your love to others.

(In this series on friendship, loneliness, and prayer, I am alternating posts on listening skills with posts about various topics related to friendship. Next week, I will return to the theme of friendship. Illustration by Dave Baab: Café Vita, Seward Park, Seattle. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

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