How to listen deeper: What is behind what people say?

We usually need to listen deeper. Bryce and I were talking one day and he said this little piece of wisdom might make for a good leadership team training: I told him I generally give people a “bye” on the first thing that comes out of their mouth. I don’t ignore them, I just reserve judgment. I assume I don’t know what they are talking about. The crazier it seems to me, the more likely I am to say, “I need to listen deeper. I must not know what is going on here, because what is on the surface can’t be all there is.”

My goal is to trust their heart, not their words, trust God at work in them, not parse their words in order to judge them. I certainly don’t want to get in a power struggle! I want to live in a condemnation-free zone, so I need to guard my feelings and  bridle my tongue. This gets harder the more intimate one is with someone, of course, since we often think we know what they are saying better than they do, and we are often poised to be offended, because what they say matters to us.

need to listen

When I told the leadership team this little bit of wisdom, an astute member immediately noted that brain chemistry backs me up. They noted Daniel Kahneman’ book Thinking Fast and Slow (2011). He shows how our minds react to stimuli with two intertwined systems: the automatic and effortful systems. My bit of wisdom is about slowing down and letting the effortful system get deeper than the snap judgments and illusions that can undermine loving responses from the automatic system. So here’s to brain research!

Slow down and listen again

When we have a large reaction to what someone is saying or feel suspicious about it, it is kind to slow down and see whether there is something else going on we can’t see yet.

There are a lot of different things that could be happening that we (and they) might not immediately see. For instance:

  • They are upset and I am feeling the upset behind what they are saying, even if they are not talking about it directly.
  • They are working something out verbally and they don’t really care what they are saying. They are not holding on to the thoughts I think are important.
  • They trust me and I am getting some very deep things that may or may not fit with the subject. They are putting a lot on the table that may not be sorted out yet.
  • They don’t know what they are talking about yet, but they want to appear like they do because they are afraid I might think they appear stupid or weak. They are speaking from their image, not their feelings.

We are often in challenging conversations in the church because we prize dialogue and are organized to make it happen.  But we are not all the same and we don’t always understand each other. So we need some effortful listening to avoid being tangled up all day or stirring up needless conflict. More love will happen if we demonstrate grace that really listens for anything good behind what people are doing and saying — especially when it seems like what we have heard so far is not so good! We want to find something good to trust. It is exactly like Paul telling the Philippians to dwell on whatever is good in Philippians 4.

This is not always easy. After the sunrise celebration on Easter, some women who like to evoke the dances of indigenous people groups made a circle and started dancing to the drums. My first reaction to what they communicated was, “There is that branding that makes quite a few people uncomfortable.” And “There is a circle that is excluding others — and they look like accessories to the worship team!”  I could have gone home and complained to Gwen in the car about it.

But, rather unconsciously I must admit, I went over and put myself in the circle for a little while. I did not dance like an indigenous person dancing, I danced like me, but I did connect with the dancers, one who is in my cell. I picked up on the deeper message in their dance and it feels good to remember the moment as I write. I understand why someone would dance on Easter Sunday — why wouldn’t everyone?! It felt good to connect with people expressing joy with their bodies and not just stuck in their head. They were not doing something wrong; they were happy!

Maybe everything that is happy seems like it is wrong to someone. And maybe we should be so free that we can express our happiness in ways that don’t run over people. My automatic thoughts were not wrong. But my effortful thoughts were better — and more connective. I tried to listen beyond my reactions, and sure enough it was possible – especially since these dancers were people I knew and loved.

Remember how you would like to be heard

Listen to someone as you would like them to listen to you. (Sounds like Jesus, right?). Think about it. How would you like someone to listen to you? Don’t we all long to express what we are thinking and feeling? How do you want someone to hear you? Do you always know what you are talking about? Aren’t you regularly wrong about what you assumed to be true about someone or some circumstance? Do you even know what you are feeling at a given moment? Chances are, we all have a lot to work through and some effortful listening from a loving person would be great. Too often we need to work something through and we end up dealing with someone’s first reactions more than what we are working through! Too much of that kind of dialogue and we stop trusting anyone enough to say much of anything!

We will make a safe place for faith, hope and love if we go for building trust. Find something good in what people are saying before you stick with your first reaction or make your point. They may say something you think is dumb, inaccurate, ill-considered, or flat out dangerous. Let that go by and look for the best thing about what they are saying. Find something you can affirm. If you can’t find it in their words, find it in them.  After all, if they are a Jesus follower, they have the Spirit of God in them! If they aren’t a follower yet, they are still made in God’s image! Affirming that goodness is the glue of love that keeps us together and makes us all healthier and happier.

One thought on “How to listen deeper: What is behind what people say?

  1. Oh Rod…you had me in tears with your vulnerable honesty. Thank you for this. Spirit moving and loving in new safe ways makes my heart skip a beat!

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