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

Quotations I love: Knowing how to “tune in” and “tune out” of conversations

Lynne Baab • Wednesday May 26 2021

Quotations I love: Knowing how to “tune in” and “tune out” of conversations

“There are many causes of ineffective listening and all of us are guilty of some of them at some time. In fact, it is almost impossible to maintain a high involvement in listening all the time. We need to ‘tune out’ to give our minds a chance to rest, but we also need to be able to ‘tune in’ when we want communication to succeed.”
—Terry Mohan, Helen McGregor, Shirley Saunders, and Ray Archee, Communicating! Theory and Practice

Ten years ago this month Dave and I were getting organized for a six month sabbatical. I had already conducted interviews with church leaders in New Zealand about listening, and we were planning on two months in Seattle for interviews, and then three months in the U.K. By the end of 2011, I had interviewed 63 ministers and lay leaders in three countries about their perceptions of the significance of listening in congregational ministry and mission.

In early 2012, we returned to New Zealand, where I was teaching pastoral theology at the University of Otago. I began leading seminars for churches on listening, and I developed a cool four-page handout that I still love. I wrote a book on listening, articles, as well as numerous blog posts. If you distilled all of that writing and teaching into two points, here’s what they would be:

  • Good listening shows love (and the contrapositive is also true: bad listening is hurtful)
  • Listening skills can be learned

These two points came from a bit of an evangelistic fervor in me based on various life experiences. Bad listening is not loving! Dominating a conversation shows disrespect! Hey, people, stop doing such a poor job showing interest in others! Have some holy curiosity about others’ lives! Pay attention to what others are thinking and feeling!

As the years have passed and my own energy level has dropped, I increasingly realize the high cost of good listening. No one, including me, has that kind of energy all the time. I picked out the quotation above years ago for my listening handout, and I also used it in my book. It has turned out to be one of those quotations that functioned a bit prophetically.

When I used the quotation in listening seminars five or more years ago, I stressed that we’re all guilty of ineffective listening, and we can do better. While that’s true, I now see that the authors are actually saying something different. They’re saying all listeners tune out sometimes because good listening is so energy draining. The key skill they’re emphasizing is knowing when and how to tune back in, to have listening skills at the ready so we can re-engage them easily.

We could also say, then, that a key skill is the ability to pay attention to our energy level and the flow of the conversation around us, so we know when tuning out is wise for us, and not hurtful to the people who are present. This requires listening to what’s inside of us as well as what God is doing in any situation.

Some listening scholars and trainers talk about double listening. They are referring to paying attention to the person we’re speaking with as well as to our own inner reality. Am I too tired to listen well now? Do I need to end this conversation so I don’t listen poorly and hurt the other person?

Some Christians also talk about double listening, but they mean something different. They are referring to listening to another person, as well as listening to God’s Spirit guiding us as we listen and respond. God, what are you calling me to do in this conversation? Have I listened enough? Is there a way to tune out and stay physically present in this space? Do I need to leave the room in order to get emotional rest? Do you want to give me more energy and focus so I can stay in this conversation longer?

We might, then, talk about triple listening: placing our focus on another person, our own inner realities, and God’s Spirit. Triple listening requires a lot of energy and attention, giving one more perspective on why effective listening is challenging and draining.

I encourage you to think about your cutting edge right now in the area of listening. Do you need to work on specific listening skills? I can recommend my book. Do you need to work on listening to what’s going on inside of yourself when you are with others? Do you need to grow in sensitivity to God’s guidance when you’re in conversations? To grow in these last two areas, I recommend lots of observation of your conversational patterns, reflecting on what you observe (perhaps with a friend or coach), and consistent prayer for God’s help to grow in triple listening.

(Next week: the first post in a new series on Holy Spirit disruptions. Illustration by Dave Baab: Myrtle Edwards Park on the Seattle waterfront. I love getting new subscribers. To get an email when I post on this blog, sign up below.)

Two articles on listening I’m especially proud of. The first one won an award and the second one appeared in our local newspaper:

[1] Terry Mohan, Helen McGregor, Shirley Saunders, and Ray Archee, Communicating! Theory and Practice, 4th ed. (Sydney: Harcourt Brace, 1992), 404.

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