“I’m not satisfied with how well I help when someone comes to me for counsel.”
“When the other person is sharing their trouble, are you thinking of how to answer?”
“That’s your problem.”
I went on to explain to the young intern who had come to me that his focus needed to be on listening to what the person speaking was saying. Coming up with a solution could wait. The first step must be to listen so as to understand clearly what the speaker is trying to convey.
Listening well is more difficult than it may seem, whether in a counseling situation or in any conversation. You likely think you are better at it than you really are. But if you can master its art, it becomes your most effective tool in solving problems, changing attitudes, and motivating others.
What makes listening a difficult art? One is the difficulty of the other person in communicating. This is especially true when a person is coming to you troubled about a problem. Their thoughts are jumbled; they don’t tell the whole story. People, in conversation, will often talk in such a way that they assume you can fill in the gaps and understand their implied comments. “You know what I mean.” “You know how it is.” Sometimes the problem being discussed is not the real problem. It is an excuse to speak with you, or it is a symptom of a larger issue that the individual seeking counsel is not cognizant of.
The other set of difficulties lies in you. You, for example, can assume you know more, understand more than you do, and as a result you formulate an answer before you know the full story. You rely on past experiences or on counseling and management books to label the issue and then proscribe the answers to give. “I’ve heard this/dealt with this before.” You may be like the intern, worried that you won’t have an answer and so are trying to resolve the matter before the full story is laid out. You may be the kind of person who thinks one way of listening fits all. You listen to your spouse the same way you listen to your customer or employee, or vice versa. One person wants emotional support while you are giving practical advice; another wants the advice while you offer only sympathy. You are failing to listen to the kind of help they want.
Yes, listening well is difficult, but it is not complex. In my next article I will give simple, practical tips on how to do it well, but it all begins with valuing listening. Do you understand just how powerful a tool listening is? Do you understand what listening is a tool for? It is easy to regard listening as but a tool to save time and to get your agenda accomplished. “Here comes Joe again with another dull idea. It’s easier to let him have his say and nod my head, so that he will move on.” “Here is Sally with yet another problem. Let me get this over with.”
To listen well is to first see the speaker as a person of value. Though his ideas may be unrealistic and her problems never-ending, they are fellow humans made in the image of God. And it is God, by the way, who has placed them in your life. It matters to him how you will treat them. To listen well is to see yourself as but a fellow person made in God’s image. As gifted as you may be, you are not higher in God’s eyes than whoever has come to you. Listening well demonstrates how well you value your neighbor and how humbly you regard yourself.
And there is a bonus to listening well that may not be on your agenda. It is the bonus of finding that your neighbor, or employee, or co-worker—whoever he or she may be—is a unique person and who likely is more interesting than you had thought. Real listening enables you to break through your own prejudices and assumptions, which are the real obstacles that hinder how you treat, teach, and lead others. The real power behind listening lies not in how it allows you to help or handle others, but in how it allows you to help yourself.