Are you listening?
When I was in college, I struggled with an eating disorder for 8 months. My junior year had some rough patches and without realizing it, my harmless attempt to lose a little bit of weight warped into an unhealthy habit.
I put myself through intense workouts every morning at 5am and kept a list of every single piece of food I ate throughout the day. I was hungry all the time. I would binge eat and then starve myself for the next day out of guilt for letting myself consume more than 1,500 calories.
Deep down, part of me knew what I was doing was unhealthy, but the way people commented on how good I looked kept me from reaching out for help.
Then I reached a breaking point.
When I was at home during spring break my mom caught me devouring an entire box of cereal after hardly eating dinner. She asked me if I was ok and as I looked at her, I realized I needed help.
I told her everything. As I did, I felt the old me slowly break free from the lies I had been telling myself. When I returned to school I got the help I needed, and now my relationship with food is much better.
Looking back on that conversation with my mom, I can see why it was the moment everything changed. Every single one of my words were being heard for the first time in months.
My mom had asked me a question and listened, purely for the purpose of understanding instead of interrupting me with her thoughts or opinions. My mom’s active listening saved me from suffering for many more months.
That’s what active listening does. It seeks to understand. It heals. It opens up the door for real conversations to take place. It’s a practice that can transform your conversations with others and even impact how you witness Christ.
What is active listening?
You’ll know you are practicing active listening if you can repeat the last sentence someone just said to you. It’s the process of taking information in and processing it for comprehension.
During a typical discussion, many of us spend our time thinking of the response we will give once the other person is done talking. A great example of this kind of “pseudo-listening” can be seen in almost any episode of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (or whatever your guilty pleasure reality TV show is).
God didn’t design conversations to be this way. Look at what is said in James 1:19, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.”
Being quick to listen and slow to speak helps us have real and impactful interactions with others. This goes for conversations with your family, your significant other, and the person standing behind you in line. And it is especially important when you are talking with another person about Jesus.
Consider putting away or turning off all electronic devices when talking with another person. This shows them they have your full attention.
How active listening creates mutual understanding
My mom took the time to really listen to me when I first opened up about my eating disorder. It couldn’t have been easy for her to hear what I had gone through. But by giving me space to open up, she gave me the space to begin to heal and was able to understand how best to help me.
Active listening is all about patience and understanding. The gift of patience helps us remove our self-centeredness and instead put other people’s needs before our own. It doesn’t always come easy, but it is well worth it. You’ll find that by truly working to understand what another person is saying, you’ll create a lasting connection.
Think about how good it feels when you can trust a friend or family member enough to confide in them about something on your mind. Knowing your words are being heard by someone who cares about you allows you to be honest and open without fear.
That exchange of information creates pathways for you to connect with another person through mutual understanding. I’ll return to the Real Housewives example to explain.
There is usually one big fight or argument that breaks out during each episode. Words are carelessly thrown at another person with the full intention of hurting them. (I know, really sounds like a family-friendly show, huh?) While some arguments fester throughout the season, every now and then relationships are mended. You know how?
When each woman takes a moment to stop and hear the other person speak, misunderstandings are cleared up, apologies are made, and the anger in the room dissipates. By listening, they develop empathy for the other person and begin to see things from another person’s point of view.
Now, if a group of reality TV star women living a lavish lifestyle can manage to have a heartfelt and open conversation, I know you can.
Will it always come naturally or be easy? No. But if you put in the practice now, you will see that your conversations will be filled with greater understanding and that you may have more opportunities to naturally share the gospel message.
How active listening creates space for gospel-healing
As you go about life, active listening will help you connect with those around you. It will show you how best to comfort, encourage, or even pray with other people.
Some time ago, one of my good friends experienced a rather difficult breakup. We were talking about it one night when she asked why nothing good ever happened to her.
She didn’t have a Christian background and instead saw things as having a karmic balance. For her, every time something bad happened she would wonder what she had done in her past to cause the pain she felt in the present.
When she asked me that question, I paused and gave her space. I asked her if she wouldn’t mind telling me why she felt that way. As she talked I realized that the pain she was feeling was because she didn’t have knowledge of who Jesus is and what He had done for her. Every pain she felt was the result of putting pressure on herself to be perfect in order to have a good life.
I carefully approached the subject and asked if I could tell her about my faith and how having faith in Jesus helps me get through difficult times in life. I didn’t belittle her situation or tell her she was wrong for believing in karma. I simply spoke about my faith in a way that connected with her simply because I had taken the time to listen to understand.
Sharing the gospel isn’t always complicated. You’ll find that the more you listen, the easier it will be to let your words guide others to Jesus.
Active listening does more than just improve conversations between two people. It opens the door for natural and authentic gospel sharing to take place.
How to practice active listening
Begin practicing active listening in your life by following these simple tips:
Your body shows that you are listening
- Face the person who is talking
- Try to be at the same eye level as the person (do not stand over them)
- Maintain a relaxed, but not slouched, posture
- Use facial expressions to show your engagement (e.g. head nods, appropriate smiles)
- Eye contact that matches the eye contact of the speaker
- Lean forward
Your voice shows that you are listening
- Encourage “Uh huh,” “Yes,” “Mmmmhh hmmm,” “I see”
- Rephrase something in your own words and ask, “Is that what you meant?”
- Summarize what you heard
- Clarify what was meant through open ended questions that encourage the speaker to add more information
Your mind shows you are listening
- Avoid the temptation to form a response while the speaker is talking. People can tell that you’re not fully listening
When you implement these strategies, you’ll experience conversations that are productive, inspiring, healing, transformative. By being “quick to listen, slow to speak,” you may even experience the joy of seeing the Holy Spirit working right before your eyes.
In conversations, please allow me to be quick to listen and slow to speak. Help me understand other people when I speak to them. Give me the words to say so I can share your message of forgiveness and salvation with those around me. May I use my words to uplift and encourage others to seek you instead of boosting my own pride. Let my discussions with others be filled with the love, joy, wisdom, and peace I receive from your son Jesus.