Listen Up

How to be a better listener

A few years ago, some friends of mine attended my church’s Easter musical, Inside Out. Several days later, I got a text from one of my friends telling me he was touched by the musical’s message. He had been through a lot and wanted to learn more about Jesus. As an aspiring pastor, I was thrilled! We made plans to get lunch, and I began planning exactly how the discussion was going to play out.

Did you catch that? We had just made arrangements to meet up and I was already coming up with an agenda. I read and reread my gospel track and rehearsed how I would lead him in a salvation prayer. As you might expect, our lunch didn’t go very well—at least not for my friend.  For me, everything went according to plan. I nodded my head as he tried pouring out his life until it was my turn to talk. At the end of our lunch, I popped the question, “Do you want to give your life to Jesus? I can pray with you right now.” He agreed, so I continued on with the plan and sealed the deal. That was the last time we ever got lunch.

I don’t blame him for not reaching out to me after what happened, although I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sharing the gospel with someone or asking him/her to receive Christ. After all, Christ commands it (Matthew 28:18-20). However, I think that God also wants us to simply listen and be a good friend to others. We are surrounded by hurting people who desperately need someone to confide in, and the last thing they would want is for us to take advantage of their vulnerability in order to serve our own agendas.

If you are a follower of Christ, you can bet that people are going to approach you when they go through strife, which is why it is so important for Christians to know how to listen. Here are four ways you can be a great listener and friend to the next person who comes to you for consolation.

1.    Listen to learn

Don’t listen only to wait for your turn to speak. It’s so easy to start thinking about your response even before the person finishes talking. Focus on what he/she is sharing and make eye contact. Reiterate what he/she is saying to communicate that you’ve been listening and that you could empathize. Basically, just let your friend know that you actually care. Even if you’re certain that you have the solution to his/her problem, no one is going to want to hear it until they know that you’re genuinely listening. There is a well-known chiasmus by John C. Maxwell that goes, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Listen to your friend attentively. That might be the best remedy in the moment.

2.    Communicate with care

After you’ve listened whole-heartedly, you must choose your words carefully and remember that your friend is putting him/herself in a vulnerable position by disclosing painful personal stories. One of the best things you can do to help is to put things back into perspective for your friend. Odds are, he/she is experiencing stress and, to some degree, even panic, so reminding your friend that he/she is going to get through the day can be a huge comfort. You can also help your friend to discover small steps to take towards a grounded solution. You can ask, “What is one thing you can do this week to mend the relationship?” Putting things into perspective and thinking of small steps toward a solution can relieve huge amounts of stress and anxiety. When it comes to bringing God into the discussion, be sincere. Don’t feel like you have to talk about God or quote a bible verse just because you are a Christian. In other words, don’t force a spiritual conversation. You can always encourage others with prayer. Offer to pray at the end of your talk or pray for your friend when you are by yourself. Just be mindful of how others might feel and check your heart before you decide to take action.

3.    Honor their honesty

This one is pretty straightforward; do not gossip about your intimate conversations with others. It takes a lot of courage for someone to open up to you, so disclosing his or her personal information without consent can do a lot of harm to the person and your relationship with him/her. If you decide to pray in a public setting, there is no need to get into details so that others might overhear. Gossip in the form of prayer is still gossip. Scripture has made it clear that God despises when people back bite and do harm to those who are already down (Obadiah 9-12 and James 4:11). Some might ask, “What if they broke the law or did something really bad?” Generally speaking, you are not obligated to disclose someone’s personal information unless they revealed plans to bring harm to themselves or to other people, or are have told you about an abuse situation. However, different professions have different rules of confidentiality and laws vary from state to state. You’ll have to do some additional research based on your profession and where you live. The point is that it is an honor and a privilege when someone lets us into the reality of their struggles and pain; therefore, we should honor the person and keep the conversation confidential.

4.    Build Boundaries

Lastly, you will need to establish boundaries. To be clear, establishing boundaries is not the same as putting up walls. Relational walls prevent us from experiencing intimacy, while boundaries keep our relationships safe and healthy. Both you and the individual need to understand that you are neither a 911 call nor a free personal therapist. You have a family, other obligations and a life of your own. I know from experience that a relationship with no boundaries can turn into an abusive or manipulative relationship real fast. That is not okay. If the person’s situation is serious and he/she is continually in need of help, there is nothing wrong with referring him/her to a professional who is more equipped to help. Even more, if someone of the opposite sex wants to confide in you, it would be in both of your best interests to refer the person to someone of his/her sex. Girls would understand girls much better and the same goes for guys. You also don’t want to risk getting feelings involved, because you don’t want to be his/her escape during hard times. The goal here is to bring him/her closer to Christ, not closer to you so that sparks might fly. By setting proper boundaries, you’re also giving the Holy Spirit more room to meet your friend’s needs. God through his Spirit can bring more comfort, counsel and correction than we ever could. Establish boundaries, learn to refer people to others, and trust that the person will be in God’s care.

Additionally, a good verse to keep in mind is Luke 6:31: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Think about how you would want someone to treat you if you came to that person broken and in need of someone to talk to. What would help you get through the difficulty that you’re facing? I want to share this article because I know that there are countless people all around us going through various types of struggles and hardships. I also know that opening up about one’s situation can be just as scary as facing the situation itself. That’s why I hope that by becoming better listeners, we will see more people come out of isolation and experience the love and compassion that they need. By doing so, we would be representing our God in a way that truly honors him.