James 1:19 says, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” This is an important verse for us to hear regarding how we relate to people in the church who are hurting. Listening is truly an art form, and one that we must maintain in order to be a force for good in the church and the world. Listening is the first step toward bridging divides. In order to begin mastering the art, we must understand why listening matters, what listening is not, and what listening is. James 1:19 help us in this.
Why Listening Matters
Listening is hard work. It’s actually easier not to listen, isn’t it? We live in a society of information-overload, constant chatter. I am prideful enough to think what I have to say is more important than what someone else has to say. My pride also makes me believe that I can be a force for change without really doing the work to understand what it is I want to change. I am lazy. Can you relate?
Listening matters, though, because listening — being “quick to hear” — destroys loneliness. We were created to know the freedom that comes from being surrounded by people who will walk through the valleys of life with us. You and I weren’t designed to shoulder burdens alone. Church, when people don’t feel heard or understood, it causes them the deep emotional pain of loneliness, and makes them wonder if anyone out there really cares. However, when someone takes the time to listen to someone in their pain, it relieves them of the burden of loneliness, allows the listener into their pain, and lets them help carry the load. Listening is the way that we will know how to fight for and with each other. Listening, therefore, is the opposite of pride and a very valuable expression of love.
What Listening Is Not
Asking the Wrong Questions
Certain questions are not helpful to ask when someone needs you to listen. As a general rule, the most loving thing to do when you are listening is to be “slow to speak,” as James 1:19 tells us. One of the main distinctions of a bad question is if it contains the word “but.” “I hear what you’re saying, but have you ever considered…” “That makes sense, but do you think the real problem is…” “I understand, but have you tried…” The word “but” is used to easily flip the conversation from what someone is really struggling with to what you think they are struggling with. This is not helpful. In order to truly listen, it is important to make the conversation about the other person. People will not feel loved if the whole conversation seems to revolve around your perception of what they were saying versus what they were actually saying.
Not Giving Your Full Attention
I am often guilty of preparing my next remark while the other person is talking. This is not love. You cannot have a constructive conversation if you spend most of the time the other person is talking focusing on your next point. If you want to understand where someone is coming from, let your response be governed by what you heard, not by what you wish they had said so you can respond with a certain point.
Dismissing People With Truth
Church, sometimes your cliché truth quips are unhelpful. I’m not saying you shouldn’t speak the truth, but hear me: if you’re talking to a fellow believer, they already know that God is sovereign, and that their pain is not going to last forever. We all have our list of verses we can unleash, but that isn’t always a welcome response. Immediately responding that “God is sovereign” an come off as dismissive, as saying, “Calm down. It isn’t that bad.” Realize that that truth cannot be used as a magic bullet. Sometimes, the reality of the sovereignty of God is too abstract to be helpful.
What Listening Is
Be Okay With Silence
Silence can be uncomfortable, but if you’re going to become a good listener, you must learn to be okay with silence. Silence is very valuable for both the sharer and the one listening. For the sharer, silence can help them collect their thoughts and show them that the listener is taking them seriously, really thinking about their words. For the listener, becoming okay with silence is a good heart check. Do I really want to hear them and understand? Is this about my agenda, or theirs? Am I more concerned about showing them that I have all the answers, or just being there for them? I have found that there is peace in knowing a friend is comfortable enough to just be with me, whether or not we say anything at all. Sometimes, saying nothing is more helpful that saying something.
Share the Right Truths
If someone opens up to you about how they are in pain, it can sometimes be difficult to know how to respond. In that moment, pray and ask God to direct you by his Spirit. Make no mistake: sharing truth is important. It just needs to be the right truth. Instead of sharing an abstract reality (albeit still true), try something a bit simpler, like how deeply they are loved by their Father in heaven. And remind them that you love them, too. Ultimately, let the Spirit of God point you in the right direction when it comes to speaking truth to a hurting person.
Asking the Right Questions
The questions you do need to be asking while listening are clarifying questions. Rather than assuming you understand what they’re saying, first make sure you understand by asking the right questions. “Can you tell me more about ______?” “How did ______ make you feel?” “Just so I understand, what is it about ______ that makes you think _____?” “Is there anything I can do about ______?” Clarifying questions are incredibly helpful in letting someone know that you really care about what they’re saying, and you really want to understand. Ask the right questions so that you know how to respond.
Church, as we begin to grasp the art of listening, we will be better equipped to minister to those around us who are hurting. These disciplines will help us all be “slow to anger,” as James 1:19 says. Anger can arise in sharers when they do not feel heard and understood, and when it seems like the people around them aren’t even trying. Anger can arise in listeners, too, if they feel like their attempts to be helpful are misunderstood and misrepresented. Most of the time, there can be constructive progress made if everyone would take a moment to breathe and think carefully about their words before speaking them.
Ask God to help you develop the art of listening, and he will make you a force for change in the church.