September 15th Sunday Service Message: The Art of Listening

Activate your listening skills

Sometimes, we may think that listening is a passive activity.  In this third of four talks in the series Expanding Our Circle of Community, Rev. Joanne explains that true listening is not passive, but a conscious activity.

Last week, Rev. Joanne discussed the Art of Sharing and ways to speak one’s truth as our authentic self from a place of love.  When listening, it is equally important to show up as our authentic self and not just hear the words of another, but give them our full attention.

We all have had the experience of sharing something in conversation with another person who was clearly not listening.  They fail to make eye contact, use conversational listening markers such as, “right,” “oh, I see,” “uh-huh,” or ask you to repeat something you just said.  It is also likely that we have been guilty of just such inattention ourselves.  This does not feel good.  Of course, there are circumstances where distractions as a listener are unavoidable, but answering a beep on your phone for an incoming text message does not qualify.

Research shows that, on average, we learn 85% of what we know from listening.  Yet, most people have never received training or really learned how to be an effective listener.  Research also shows that our immediate recall of information within five minutes is approximately 50%.  That number decreases to less than 20% in as little as one hour.

There are a number of factors that affect our ability to recall information we have heard including attention, motivation, interference, and context.  While in all circumstances we may not be able to control motivation, interference and context, we have 100% control over our attention.  This is true if we are in a classroom lecture, watching a film, listening to the radio or engaged in conversation with another.  In the context of Rev. Joanne’s lesson and this essay, we will focus on listening when in conversation with another person.

There are any number of ways we can sabotage our ability to truly listen to another person in conversation.  One of the most commonplace, and unproductive, themes in our culture today is an overwhelming need to be right.  We see this played out in the public forum on broadcast news and social media every day.

Although the thing that gets the most attention in this regard is politics, it goes much, much deeper that that.  For example, if you read the comments section of a YouTube video you will discover that everyone is an expert in everything.  Who knew?  Virtuoso musical performances are denigrated.  Helpful “how to” videos are slammed as being posted by fools and know nothings.  And, of course, sometimes when we engage in conversations with others we start from a place of being not just argumentative, but often being down right antagonistic.  This can occur with co-workers, the guy at the neighborhood pub discussing sports or, most damagingly, with our friends, family, and intimate partners.  When we enter into a discussion that is adversarial from the start, often we discount everything the other person is saying, and are scripting in our head, either beforehand or during the conversation, what we want to say.  This is a wall that creates a barrier to true listening.

Naturally, not all conversations are of an adversarial nature.  Most conversations are of ordinary events in our lives.  Some smaller number of conversations are about more important topics such as marriage, new child in the family, divorce, career change, personal illness, family member illness, or death in the family.  Regardless of the circumstances or topic of conversation, deep active listening benefits both you as the listener, and the person you are speaking with because instead of talking past one another or only hearing their words in the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher (wah wah . . . wah wah wah . . .) true communication is occurring.  That is where learning and agreement, and compassion and understanding occur.

So what are some ways that we can improve our listening skills in conversation?  Rev. Joanne lays out five things we all can do:

Make eye contact.  Do not be obnoxious about it and get into a staring contest, but be certain to actually look into the other person’s eyes when they are speaking.  When someone is sharing something painful, embarrassing or very personal, sometimes they will intentionally look downward or off to one side to avoid eye contact.  That is okay, and is understandable.  We cannot control another’s behavior.  What we can do in such a situation is to be sensitive to that, and pay attention to them so that when their eyes do face you, you will already be present and available for eye contact.  This will demonstrate to the person that you have been listening, even when they were not actually looking at you.

Show interest.  This can be demonstrated by using the simple conversation markers mentioned above, by nodding, using facial expressions, or by subtly leaning forward toward the speaker.  More than half of communication is non-verbal.  So when the other person is speaking, be attentive to not just their words but their tone of voice and pacing, their posture, facial expressions and gestures.  This is something we do naturally most of the time.  For example, if you call your spouse to see if they will be home for dinner on time and they answer “I’m on my way now, I’ll be home in 10 minutes,” and they snap their answer to you, it is like a porcupine raising its quills.  If you have sense, you know not to inquire in that exact moment what is wrong.  There is time for that later.  As an aside, this is one reason that electronic communications, such as emails and text messages, are often misunderstood because sometimes context and intent are not expressible in just the words.

Do not interrupt.  When a person is telling you something, especially if it is something that has a lot of emotion attached to it, it is not only rude to interrupt but can actually disrupt the person’s train of thought and derail the conversation.  This is equally true whether someone is sharing good news or bad news.  If you would like clarification on something, pay attention to when there is a natural pause in their telling then . . .

Ask questions.  The questions you ask may be aimed at clarifying something you did not understand or getting back story to provide context.  They may also take the form of probing further regarding the situation such as, “and then what happened?” or “what will you do now?”  Depending on the situation, you may also ask how the situation makes the other person feel, or if there is anything you can do to help them.  Or celebrate!

Do not talk about yourself.  If someone is telling you that they have just been laid off at work the last thing they want to hear about in that moment is when you were laid off.  It is perfectly fine to say “I know how you feel, I experienced something similar.”  Just do not go on about the details, unless you are asked specifically about how you handled it.  Similarly, if someone is sharing the good news about a promotion they just received, do not diminish their happy moment by talking about when you received a promotion.  Also, in situations where strong emotions are being expressed – sad, happy, angry, or joyful – do not abruptly change the subject.  That can be very jarring, and may be taken by the other person to mean that you do not care about what they just told you.

By keeping in mind these techniques when in conversation, we cannot help but improve our listening skills - and our relationships.  Just as with anything, the more we do something the more we improve.  Eventually, this way of listening will be second nature and we will not even have to think about them as “techniques,” but simply as good manners and good listening.


My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this:  Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.  James 1:19

Spiritual Practice:

This week, pay attention to how you listen.  Make a conscious effort to listen without scripting your response.  Just listen.

It can be a challenge to restrain the voice in your head that wants to speak so badly, that not only are we not listening in conversation, but we actually do not physically hear what the other person is saying.  This week, I will work on taming that voice in my own head and make a conscious effort to show up in conversation as an active listener.  As a listener, how will you show up in conversation this week?

Greg Skuderin