Listening as an Act of Love

As a counselor educator and supervisor, I have often had occasion to train new lay and professional counselors in the art of listening. I consider this the most important intervention in therapy when helping individuals and couples heal fractured relationships—to train them to truly listen to others in a constructive and loving way.

Many people I talk to feel that they are good listeners. I suppose they assume this because friends or family members seek them out to talk to them about their problems. Indeed, some individuals are more naturally gifted than others with the capacity to listen well.  But I believe good listeners are pretty rare.

Listening is actually very hard work, and most of us, without intentional effort and even a bit of training, don’t do it very well. Think about it: it is perhaps the main reason counselors are required to go to counselor school and complete long internships before they are unleashed upon the public. Anyone can learn to speak well by doing it a lot. But we often take listening for granted and assume that we’ve got it covered without working on it. This complacency about listening causes an incredible amount of pain in relationships.

M. Scott Peck, in his well-known book, The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, offers a compelling analysis of the relationship between listening and loving. He starts with the concept that love, to truly be love, requires either work, or courage, or both. When we extend ourselves to others, we must overcome inertia to move into a work of love or press through fear when love involves risk and vulnerability and we need courage.

Peck further explains that the primary work in loving others is giving them the gift of our full attention, and listening is the primary form of giving our attention.

How we all need to be listened to! I’ve often said that if people could learn to listen to one another, I’d be out of business, and that would be just fine with me. Everyone would feel so loved that I’d quit being a counselor and open a flower shop or something fun like that.

We instinctively know when someone has really heard us, and there are few things in life that are more healing and validating. David Augsburger has said, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.”

I witness this in marital therapy all the time. By slowing down the communication process so that each speaker knows he or she has really been heard absolutely transforms the atmosphere of the relationship. It invites intimacy and emotional safety. It demonstrates love in the most powerful way I know.

Jesus was a wonderful listener. He listened perfectly to his Father, always acting in accordance with the Father’s word and will. He also listened to people with wholehearted interest when their motives were sincere and rooted in faith. Based on their questions and concerns, he offered responses that, even when provocative or challenging, promoted life and hope. Some notable examples are the Samaritan woman of John 4, Nicodemus in John 3, and his ongoing dialogues with his closest disciples in John 13-16.

The Bible, and especially the Wisdom literature, exhorts us to listen to God, and to listen to the wise counsel of others. This is key to living a fruitful life. The Apostle James commanded by the Holy Spirit, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…” (James 1:19). I’m reminded of the quip about having two ears and only one mouth, indicating that maybe we should listen at least twice as much as we speak.

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If you desire to become a better listener, a good place to start is to notice what happens mentally when you are supposedly listening to someone. You might be graciously giving eye contact and nodding your head to indicate attention, while you’re actually thinking about what you are going to say as soon as there is a pause. If you were required to accurately paraphrase what the person had said, you might be at a loss.

If you catch yourself doing this, practice the discipline of putting your own thoughts to the side, and listening with the goal of being able to reflect and validate what the person has said. Carl Rogers called this “accurate empathy.” It is at the heart of most healing and change.

This type of listening calls for delayed gratification, which is an essential aspect of maturity. Patience, grasshopper, you’ll get your turn. In fact, if your friend, spouse, or child really feels heard—and therefore loved–by you, they are going to be much more likely to want to hear what you have to say when it’s your turn.

Peace and blessing to us all as we practice our ability to listen to God and others with our whole hearts, and thereby love one another well.

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