Jane called just as I was walking out the front door. Juggling my bag, Bible, and car keys, I answered the phone. "Hi," she said. "Have you got a minute?" I said I did, because I had told the members of my Bible study to call me anytime.
Jane was upset because her best friend, Sarah, had decided to leave the church. I knew Sarah's move stemmed from a ministry opportunity elsewhere. So instead of empathizing with her disappointment, I insisted Jane should feel glad for her friend. Then I interrupted her to tell her I had to leave.
Afterward, I felt vaguely uneasy. I had been studying Proverbs, and many of the passages I'd looked at had to do with listening and careless speech. God had been convicting me about how poorly I sometimes chose my words—as I realized I'd just done with Jane.
In response to his nudging, I purposefully began to restrain my tongue. Over time, a strange thing happened. I noticed new depth in my friendships. My husband shared deeper feelings with me. My friends sensed a real change in the way I related to them. As I listened, I gained a better understanding of their fears and joys, and my heart opened to them more deeply than before.
Proverbs helped me identify some common listening difficulties and gave me a better understanding of how listening strengthens our friendships.
An Understanding Ear
"A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions" (Proverbs 18:2). When our friends share problems or hurts, it's easy to believe the best response is immediate advice or counsel. Quick answers, however, sometimes do more harm than good, and often don't lead to a better understanding.
Psychologists have studied how the responses of people in everyday conversations lead to meaningful communication. Or not. Evaluating—that is, approving, disapproving, or judging what others share—is the most common response. Most of us have an overwhelming tendency to offer our opinions.
Evaluation, unfortunately, creates a barrier in relationships. It puts us in a place of authority apart from those we want to befriend, rather than alongside them. When I told Jane how she should feel, I judged her sadness as wrong. She needed an understanding ear, but I gave her an evaluation.
We Interrupt This Broadcast …
"He who answers before listening—that is his folly and his shame" (Proverbs 18:13). We may also fail to listen to our friends because we're too preoccupied to hear what they're saying. Not listening carefully becomes a way of life when we're perpetually distracted. It takes time to listen.
We must make a conscious effort to slow down and listen intentionally. Do we interrupt? Do we think about what we want to say instead of listening? If so, we must apologize and re-focus on the person speaking: "I'm sorry. I just interrupted you. Please go ahead."
Florence Littauer tells about one woman's strategy for listening to her daughter. Barbara, a talkative woman, brews a pot of coffee and grabs a banana when her quiet daughter has something to talk about. She sits down with her daughter, sips coffee, and listens. If she feels the urge to interrupt, offer advice, or express an opinion, she takes a bite of the banana.
Ask God to show you anyone in your life you tend to answer before listening. Then consider what practical changes you might make to listen better.
The Healing Touch
"Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing" (Proverbs 12:18). We easily identify reckless drivers, but how often do we notice reckless speech—particularly our own? Without a keen ear, we risk injuring others with wrong responses.
A friend of mine recently described a conversation that occurred as he purchased a minivan from a young couple. During the transaction, he asked if they had any children. The husband remarked that their daughter would have been six, and they had a son who was two.
My friend would have missed the implication that their daughter had died if he hadn't been listening carefully. Any response that failed to address that fact would have hurt them further. But he did hear, and he understood the significance of what the man had said. He asked about their daughter and gave them an opportunity to tell their story. His wise response brought comfort instead of reopening old wounds.
"The heart of the righteous weighs its answers" (Proverbs 15:28). In addition to being reckless, at times our words do not help others because we've not weighed our answers appropriately. When friends or family toss out tentative comments to test the waters—casually mentioning an ill parent or lightly touching on some worry—do they hear a shallow response or an invitation to share more?
Our responses reveal how well we have listened. Others can hear our sympathy, or lack of it. The extent to which we weigh our words reflects how seriously we've taken our friends' concerns.
"When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise" (Proverbs 10:19). After reading that sobering verse, I made efforts to practice it. In situations where I might have jumped into a group conversation, I worked to keep quiet. When someone asked my opinion, I gave it. If someone interrupted me, I yielded and consciously responded with body language and facial expressions instead of words.
No one seemed to miss what I might have added. When I did speak, people considered what I had to say important. Sometimes no one asked me to finish a story, but it didn't matter. I felt more connected with the members of the group after listening to them than I would have if I had talked more.
The Fount of Wisdom
"For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding" (Proverbs 2:6). When Jane called me, she probably assumed I would have some biblical wisdom to share. Or perhaps she hoped I had spent time in prayer, particularly for her, and would help shoulder her burden. Those expectations were fair.
As believers, we must dwell in the Scriptures if we hope to speak words of knowledge and understanding. Only then will what we say reflect God's perspective. Even when a particular biblical truth is relevant, however, we must still listen carefully before offering it. The Bible is full of the Father's wisdom, but we must resist the urge to treat it as his "fix-it" manual.
As we practice setting our words aside and listening actively, and as we grow in our knowledge of God, his words will become our words. He will lead us as we listen to our friends. Then we can respond with wisdom to those who are disheartened. Our caring responses will reveal God's love and deepen our friendship with them.
Used by permission of Discipleship Journal. Copyright 2002, The Navigators. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. To subscribe, visit www.discipleshipjournal.com.
- In which of your relationships are you most likely to interrupt?
- Which of the above skills does our group demonstrate most often?
- What are some practical steps our group could take to improve in one or more of the above skills?
Interested in learning more about practical skills to use in your small group? Check out these great training resources from BuildingSmallGroups.com:
- Becoming a Great Listener: This download features practical skills and advice that will help you improve as a listener. It also includes helpful ways to administer those skills in a small-group setting.
- Go Deeper with God: Discover the art of contemplative prayer and how to listen for God's replies. Explore the concept of lectio divina and how it applies to a better understanding of, and closer relationship to, God.
- Helping Group Members Become Great Listeners: Learn how to set the stage for an emotionally safe group and learn keys to good listening that you can share with group members. But be warned: it all starts with your example, leader. Your group members will follow what you model.