I Thought I Was Listening, But It Turns Out I Wasn’t

I get embarrassed over how many times I have to ask a new contact for their name…a second time.

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It’s like they just told me their name and by the end of the conversation, I am asking, “So…tell me your name again?” And even then there might be a chance that I struggle to keep that name with me.

Why does that happen?

Or even worse, how about not listening to a conversation that you are part of?

This past weekend, I was on my phone looking at some communication on my app that I use to track my bike rides. I was replying to someone who had commented on my last burly ride. Somewhere in the midst of that, my wife made a comment about the fact that it was starting to rain and I may not be able to mow the yard.

Fast forward a hour or two, and I finish up breakfast and look outside, only to see that it was raining. “Hmmmm,” I thought. “Doesn’t look like I am going to be able to do the yard today.” As I am in the back bedroom talking with my wife, I noted my observations about the day. To which she replied, “Yes, remember we already had that discussion? You were replying to someone on your phone.”

In other words, I was hearing the conversation but not really listening. Ouch. I hate when I do that.

What does it truly mean to listen to another person? Because I think there are four ways in which we can hear words but not listen, but there is only one way in which we can listen with the end goal of actually meeting a need.

These ideas came from some recent reading in Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People from his fifth habit, Seek First to Understand, Then To Be Understood.

Why is this so important? Because if we are not listening well, we are losing opportunities to serve or help others. And if we are not serving others, we are not loving others. And love is a primary way that we show that we have been changed by the power of the Gospel.

So this has huge implications.

Part of my problem is that I am not seeking to understand the other person – I am seeking to reply to the other person. The time that another person is talking should not be my prep time for what I will say next. As if their communication is merely a chance for me to catch my breath before I speak again about my story.

I have done this with my kids in the past when they were younger and have had to ask their forgiveness. While I am in “correction mode,” their time of explaining things was merely an opportunity for me to reload. 

Not effective.

So what are ways that we “hear words” but are not truly listening? Here are four levels.

Level 1

At the first level is ignoring. I am unengaged and it is probably being showcased to the other person by my non-verbal communication. For whatever reason, the other person’s story is simply not engaging or relevant to me. 

And so I check out.

Level 2

At the next level, I act is if I am listening. I give the head nod and even the “mmm hmmm” or “yeah right.” But there is no heart connection.

Level 3

At this third level, I use selective hearing, where I am listening to most of the conversation, but also trying to keep tabs on something else going on around me, perhaps another conversation.

Level 4

Level 4 listening is another notch up, but still somewhat limited. It is attentive listening, where I am paying attention, as well as focusing my energy on the other person and what they are saying.

These are all levels of listening that I have used at various times in my life and I end up feeling pretty good about my listening skills if I am engaging with others at level 4. After all, isn’t being attentive to others what it is all about as we listen?

Well, as I am realizing, it is not. I am often so eager to have the other person hear my reply, that I am not really hearing the other person’s heart. 

James 1:19 has this to say about how we hear others:

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear…

That word “quick” is the only time this greek word is used in the new testament. It means “prompt” or “ready.” How often am I prompt or ready to listen to the words of another? There is a preparation about this type of listening..

Colossians 3:12-14 is a notable passage that indirectly relates to how I listen:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

Though this text speaks of action, if you think this through, they all are action items to either what I have listened to or experienced. All can be responses to what I listen to from others. I “put on” because I have “listened to.”

There is a final level of listening, though, that far exceeds any of the previous four that I have listed and it is one that I believe we are called to. 

Level 5

This final level that supersedes the others is what we refer to as empathetic listening. Empathetic listening has to do with the way I listen to another person. It does not mean just merely listening in an active or reflective manner. 

Level 4 listening seeks to hear the emotion of the other person. Level 5 listening seeks to understand the emotion of the other person. Do you see the difference? 

I have a friend with whom God has really joined our hearts together. He is going through some tough physical issues where the therapy involved means leaving his wife for at least a month to get himself to a better state of health. 

As we have done coffee together over the last weeks, or my wife and I have done dinner with he and his wife, I am really desiring to listen in such a way that I get what he and his wife are feeling in this. I do not have a clue what it is actually like, but I want to deeply understand his emotions and thought processes during this time. 

What this has done is given me meaning in the midst of hearing the tough words from my friend and his wife of what is going on. Instead of projecting my own autobiography into his life (level 4 listening), I am instead allowing him to project his autobiography into my life (level 5 listening). And it is granting me to the ability hear the soul of my friend and not merely his words. 

And this type of listening is spurring me to action instead of replying with “I am sorry to hear that.”

I read an interesting quote about this:

Empathic listening is also risky. It takes a great deal of security to go into a deep listening experience because you open yourself up to be influenced. You become vulnerable. It’s a paradox, in a sense, because in order to have influence, you have to be influenced. You have to really understand.

I agree. This type of listening is risky, because it does demand some sort of action, response, or jumping into the person’s life. But I am finding out what true community is about and why God wires us for this.

It listens to another as God listens to me.

God does not “Level 1-4” me in my prayer life. Hebrew 4:15 reminds me…

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.

My God is an empathetic listener, and He models for me what I am to do with others. And I am finding out that this “risk” of going deep in my listening affords me benefits and satisfaction far beyond what a level 1-4 type of listening could ever give me. 

And I am discovering that my listening has as much to do with how I serve others as my actual actions do.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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5 thoughts on “I Thought I Was Listening, But It Turns Out I Wasn’t

  1. And I am the first to admit guilt in this area. I am realizing that all listening is not the same. This came from a secular book but it has a ton of gospel connection. Thanks for the comment Vicki!

  2. Yeah, and it has hit home to me many times. I have realized that I am too tied into my own agenda when listening to others and miss the opportunity to help them in THEIR story. Because, bottom line, they are not talking with me to get more of mine.

    Thanks for the comment, Kay. I appreciate your reading this post!