I am not a great listener. I lose focus. One word can trigger any number of divergent thoughts causing my mind to race off in pursuit like a dog chasing cats. At other times I leap ahead, thinking about what I want to say rather than listening to what is being said. I have to discipline myself to re-focus on the conversation, sometimes scrambling to piece together the gaps that I missed during my mental lapses. My wife knows this. She can see it in my eyes. Sometimes she will stop talking and the silence will awaken me from my temporary daydream. “You’re not listening,” she says. Of course she is right. But occasionally I am lucky enough to be able to repeat the last sentence that she spoke, retrieving it from some kind of digital recording in my head, even though it’s meaning was not being registered in my brain.
My wife, on the other hand, is a great listener. That is one of the reasons I married her. She listens intently, not just to me, but also to anyone speaking to her. I once watched a total stranger stop her on the street in New York and spill out their life story. I have witnessed the same thing on subways, in train stations, and shopping centers in the U.S. and Europe. You can see it in her eyes. She focuses. She doesn’t glance around the room wondering if there is someone else she should speak to. She doesn’t look beyond you. Her eyes don’t glaze over in a fixed stare that pretends to listen while she thinks about something else.
Listening is a powerful gift. It is transformational. When someone listens to us without judgment or accusation we hear and see ourselves differently. Somehow the act of having someone truly listen enables us to sort through our emotions and confusions to reach better conclusions. Feelings of isolation and loneliness dissolve and melt away when someone listens to us. The listener, by listening, has the ability to heal.
Most of us are far more intent on being heard than hearing. When we pretend to listen, we are, more often simply waiting for a gap, a chance in the conversation to insert our already preconceived conclusions. We interrupt one another with conversations that often are running on different tracks.
How many times have we injured someone, or simply failed to help someone, because we were too quick to speak? How different our world would be if parents listened to their children; if bosses listened to their employees; if businesses listened to their customers; if politicians listened to the people; if persons in power listened to each other? Maybe if we were better at listening to one another, we might be better at listening to God.
The Bible says, “Everyone must be quick to hear and slow to speak.” (James 1:19). In Isaiah, God says “Listen carefully to Me. ... Incline your ear and come to Me. Listen, that you may live.” (Isaiah 55:2-3).