Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationSabbath Keeping FastingPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathFriendingA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthA Renewed SpiritualityDeath in Dunedin: A NovelDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelPersonality Type in CongregationsBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

Why Do We Listen?

Lynne Baab • Thursday February 26 2015

Why Do We Listen?

A few weeks ago, I suggested that perhaps a focus on listening might be a good thing to do in Lent. For the weeks of Lent, I’m going to post excerpts from my book, The Power of Listening, in case you’d like to work on your listening skills. I’m beginning with some thoughts on the purpose of listening.

Humans listen for many different reasons. Like most mammals, birds, and reptiles, humans listen at a very basic level to protect ourselves and our loved ones from danger. For a raccoon or robin, listening brings awareness of predators. When I ride my bicycle, I pay attention to the car and truck traffic on the road, and part of my awareness comes from listening. When I had young children and I walked with them near busy streets, I used all my senses, including hearing, to try to keep them safe from harm.

Listening plays a role for some animals in their ability to find food, and a parallel for humans might involve all the listening we do that gives us information for all sorts of purposes. As we listen for information, we easily move from facts to analysis of the facts, and then to deeper meaning. Note the progression in complexity and level of meaning in the following series of questions: What time does that movie start? Where is the theater located? What kinds of things are reviewers saying about the movie? Does it sound like a good movie? Does this movie have spiritual implications? If I took a group of high school students from the youth group to that movie, what kinds of issues might we discuss afterwards?

Communication scholars make a distinction between hearing and listening. Hearing involves perceiving a sound with the ear, while listening involves paying attention to the sounds received by the ear and perceiving the meaning in them. We might say listening involves being alert to the sounds we hear. When we listen, we heed the sounds, tune into them, give consideration to them, or process them actively. In fact, the English word “listen” comes from two Anglo-Saxon words. One of them means “hearing,” and the other means “to wait in suspense.” Conversations might manifest greater love and attentiveness if we adopted an attitude of waiting in suspense to learn something from the other person’s words.

In common parlance, we interchange the meaning of these two words—listen and hear—quite frequently. “Yes, I hear you,” we might say when we want to indicate that we’re listening carefully. Or we might say, “I’m listening to the radio,” when we’re immersed in another task and the radio has become background noise only.

When I take the youth group to that new movie and we talk about it afterward, I will hear the words that come out of the mouth of the youth group members, but will I truly listen to what they are saying? Will I hear the emotions behind the words? And what interpretation will I give to the words I hear? Many factors impede our ability to listen carefully, even if we are physically hearing the words people say.

The challenges of interpretation grow more intense when conversations focus on deeper issues, when the purpose of listening becomes more nuanced. Why might I desire to listen deeply to the youth group members when discussing a movie with spiritual themes? Is the goal to help the students feel that someone cares about their thoughts? To help them make deeper connections to Christian themes? To motivate them to draw near to God in prayer? And to what extent am I accurately perceiving the central issues the students are trying to talk about, particularly when I have a goal or agenda for the conversation?

Which aspect should the listener pay attention to? To the facts? To the emotions of the person telling the story? To the strategic implications? Can we listen to all those things simultaneously?

Some additional resources on listening:

(Book excerpt from The Power of Listening by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Rowman & Littlefield. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt  may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.)



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