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Quotations I love: A primary task of listening

Lynne Baab • Saturday May 22 2021

Quotations I love: A primary task of listening

“One of the primary tasks of the listener is to stay out of the other’s way so the listener can discover how the speaker views his situation.”
—Robert Bolton, “Listening Is More Than Hearing” [1]

Can you think of a conversation where you started talking about a topic, and after you talked about it for a while, your perspective changed? Certainly our perspective can change from hearing another person’s opinion, but sometimes, in one of those rare and beautiful conversations with a good listener, we find that our views on something change as we talk through it.

You’re probably familiar with the concept of external and internal processors. External processors think out loud, and they are more likely to be extraverts. When we provide a platform for an external processor to talk through a topic, we are providing a significant service. We are showing love.

I am an introvert, and I am probably about 60-40 when it comes to internal versus external processing. That 40% of processing that I do externally requires someone who is willing to listen to me think out loud. I want to propose that even the most introverted person imaginable, even people who do lots and lots of internal processing, can sometimes get stuck and can benefit from a listening ear while they think out loud.

The quotation I’ve given you comes from Robert Bolton, a communication skills trainer. He argues that making space for people to discover their own thoughts about whatever situation they’re in is one of the primary tasks of listening. Note his use of the word “discover.” I tend to think of external processing as an exercise of thinking though something. I love thinking about external processing as journey of discovery.

Maybe the answer to a tricky relational problem is already there in my brain, but I haven’t accessed it yet. Maybe I read an article with the exactly right suggestion, but it’s buried deep in my memory and I need to resurrect that idea. Maybe two or three thoughts – all of them located in different parts of my mind – need to come together in order for me to see a path forward. My own spinning thoughts haven’t made the connections yet, but as I talk, I get there.

I am deeply grateful for the people who have listened to me talk through issues in my life. I am so thankful for their patience with my swirling thoughts. I am so aware of the gift they have given me. So many times, friends and family members have shown great love as they helped me discover how I really view a situation.

Despite my awareness of how helpful good listening is, I have to admit that in many settings, I find it unbelievably hard to “stay out of the other’s way.” I am very aware of my knee jerk response when someone is talking about any kind of problem: I love to give advice, yet I know advice is so seldom helpful to people.

Listening researchers describe typical things that people do in conversations that get in the other person’s way and stop the other person’s flow of thoughts. In addition to giving advice we might:

  • Judge (“maybe you shouldn’t have done that”)
  • Deny (“it’s not that bad”)
  • Ask too many questions
  • Redirect the conversation into action (“let’s get those dishes done”)
  • Tell our own story at length [2]

The first step, I think, is to truly believe that in many instances people have the inner wisdom to solve their own problems. As listeners, we can help people access that wisdom by showing we’re listening and by asking occasional questions to draw out further thoughts. The second step is to identify the ways we typically interrupt other people’s flow of thoughts, then practice strategies that help us stay in a listening stance.

God who listens to us pour out our hearts, help us listen to the people you bring into our lives. Help us honor their journeys and inner wisdom. Help us recognize and avoid the ways we stop others’ flow of thoughts. We need your strength and love to listen well. Jesus, amazing listener, have mercy on us. Amen.

Next week: knowing when not to use focused (and draining) listening skills. Illustration by Dave Baab. I love to get new subscribers. Sign up below to receive an email when I post on this blog.

Previous blog posts and you may enjoy:

My book on listening is called The Power of Listening: Building Skills for Mission and Ministry

[1] Robert Bolton, “Listening Is More Than Merely Hearing,” in Bridges Not Walls: A Book about Interpersonal Communication, ed. John Stewart (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990), 183-184.
[2] Most of this list comes from Richard Bolstad and Margot Hamblett, Transforming Communication (Auckland: Longman, 1997), 88-89.



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