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Good listeners are detectives, not tennis players

Saturday September 12 2015

Good listeners are detectives, not tennis players

A friend forwarded me a wonderful blog post about good listening as a way to build relationships. Out of six pieces of advice about listening, the first item in the post suggests that good listeners should view themselves as detectives instead of tennis players who are waiting to hit the ball back as quickly as they can.

The author writes, “Rather than having to fake being interested, turning it into a detective game actually makes you interested. And this makes the other person feel special.”

Yes, yes, I totally agree, being a detective is a great idea. And I agree that the fruit of being a detective is that that other person usually feels valued. I have to disagree slightly with one point. Yes, it’s true we often become more interested as we listen carefully, but not always.

Here are some other good fruits of being a detective in conversations:

  • we learn things, often really interesting things
  • we are able to reflect back to the other person what we think we heard, which helps them clarify their thoughts
  • we give people the time and space to think out loud about how they might solve their own problems
  • we help people know they are not alone in their struggles, pain or joy

Being a conversational detective seems to me to be the absolutely right thing to do. But why, then, do so many people engage in conversation as if they were tennis players, waiting eagerly for their turn? What lies behind the willingness (or unwillingness) to be a detective? One or more of these significant attitudes has to be present in order for us to be willing to listen like a detective:

1. We have to believe that good listening shows love.

2. We have to desire to show love to the person we’re listening to.

3. We have to care enough about others to want them to be able to process out loud what’s going on in their lives, and we have to believe that the person can indeed get to their own solution if they work through the problem as they talk about it.

4. We have to believe we can learn something from others.

5. We have to believe that God is present in other people and will speak to us through them.

These are a big, big ask. We can’t assume people feel love for each other or want to learn from others. We can’t assume people understand that letting a person talk through their challenges actually helps the person meet those challenges. After all, often when people talk about painful things in their life it sounds like they’re just complaining.

Number 5 is possibly the biggest ask. I often use a quotation by Craig Satterlee about what he calls “holy listening.” It’s definitely worth pondering what might help us view listening as holy. Satterlee writes:

Holy listening demands vigilance, alertness, openness to others, and the expectation that God will speak through them. Holy listening trusts that the Holy Spirit acts in and through our listening. We discern and discover the wisdom and will of God by listening to one another and to ourselves. From a Christian perspective, holy listening also takes the incarnation seriously; it dares to believe that, as God was enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth, so God is embodied in other people and in the things around us. [1]

Satterlee’s description of holy listening has helped me think creatively in so many ways about listening, and I wrote more about that in an earlier blog post. Do I really believe God is embodied in the people around me? Even when they are poor listeners? Despite the time I spend thinking about listening as a holy activity, I still get so frustrated (and feel so unloving) when people talk and talk and talk. And I have to confess that I often lack several if not all of those perspectives I’ve labeled 1-5 above. Listening is hard work because love is a challenge in so many ways and in so many settings.

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[1] Adapted from When God Speaks through Change: Preaching in Times of Congregational Transformation (Bethesda, MD: The Alban Institute, 2005).

 

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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