Listening Well

Life Groups are networks of 3–5 men or 3–5 women who are intentional about helping one another live under Jesus’s lordship. We’ve called this discipleship in depth. It’s our hope of fulfilling Jesus’s commission to us when he says that making disciples involves teaching one another to observe all that he has commanded us (Matthew 28:18–20).

Life Groups are made up of three main ingredients: 1) We remember our stories; 2) We listen well; and 3) We speak the truth in love. In a previous article, I introduced a framework for how we can each remember and share our stories, and really highlight the ways that the gospel story has collided with our own. This article in on that second ingredient: How do we listen well?

Listening Matters

Life Groups are a group of disciples who help one another mature in their walk with Jesus. It’s not about what you have to say, or what you need to get off your chest. In most cases, each individual will be listening twice as much as they talk.

It’s no secret that the art of conversation has fallen on hard times in our day, and if we had to pinpoint one big reason, it’s got to do with the listening part. Trust me, we haven’t forgotten how to say stuff. Just look around. There is smorgasbord of channels and mediums through which anybody anywhere can pretty much say whatever they want. The real challenge is the rare skill of looking at another human being and following along with what they’re saying. In our Life Groups, this is vital to what we want to do. In those moments when we sit down together, when we mine the depths of how we are really doing, we want to actively listen to one another, which means at least three things. . . .

1. You Are Patient

Pastor David has a sweet article on six lessons for good listening. His first lesson has to do with patience, and he leans on the expert when it comes to following Jesus in community: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We are warned in Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together, to not be the kind of listener who is just buying time before it’s their turn to talk. You know what I mean. We should avoid “a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say.” Bonhoeffer calls this “an impatient, inattentive listening, that . . . is only waiting for a chance to speak.”

Pastor David nails this point. This is how he puts it:

Positively, then, good listening requires concentration and means we’re in with both ears, and that we hear the other person out till they’re done speaking. Rarely will the speaker begin with what’s most important, and deepest. We need to hear the whole train of thought, all the way to the caboose, before starting across the tracks.

Good listening silences the smartphone and doesn’t stop the story, but is attentive and patient. Externally relaxed and internally active. It takes energy to block out the distractions that keep bombarding us, and the peripheral things that keep streaming into our consciousness, and the many good possibilities we can spin out for interrupting. When we are people quick to speak, it takes Spirit-powered patience to not only be quick to hear, but to keep on hearing.

This takes a little time. So be easy. Be patient.

2. You Look for the Heart

Active listening isn’t content to merely stay on the surface of what has been said. We want to press in, follow the trail, think deeply. This means that when we listen we have a foundational understanding of the human person and how our souls work. It’s the heart.

We know the driving force behind how we live is our affections. We are loving creatures — desiring beings. We want things. We have appetites. And everything we do is constructed around this reality. So when we hear one another talk, we want to be mindful of this, and it gets back to the framework of how we understand our own stories. We look somewhere for identity and significance. We all perceive that there is some problem with what’s going on. We all look somewhere for a solution to the problem. We all envision a future reality where everything is put right.

And when our identity is not rooted in God, and our problem is not mainly our sin, and our solution isn’t Jesus and his gospel, and our hope isn’t a new creation, things tend to spiral out of control. So we want to listen and look for the heart.

Where is there insecurity, failures, approval, rejection? What about fear, shame, hiding, blame, guilt? Or revenge, power, control, anger, the need to prove one’s self? Or entitlement, self-focus, comfort, avoidance, and hopelessness?

These are matters of the heart. Sometimes we can perceive and articulate this, but a lot of times it’s hidden behind what’s going on. So we each want to listen for this in one another.

3. You Ask Good Questions

And one of the best ways to listen for the heart is to ask good questions. I mean the kind of questions that linger on something that’s been said, the kind of question that presses in and sincerely wants to grasp (and help the speaker trace out) what he or her has shared.

Proverbs 20:5 tells us, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” That is the picture. We are, by God’s grace, led by his Spirit, attempting to reach down into the well of another and draw out their heart. Again, Pastor David writes,

Good listening asks perceptive, open-ended questions, that don’t tee up yes-no answers, but gently peel the onion and probe beneath the surface. It watches carefully for non-verbal communication, but doesn’t interrogate and pry into details the speaker doesn’t want to share, but meekly draws them out and helps point the speaker to fresh perspectives through careful, but genuine, questions.

For helpful resources on types of questions to ask, check out “Gospel Shepherding: Ask Good Questions” (PDF) by Abe Meysenburg and “X-Ray Questions” (PDF) by David Powlison.

Coming up next is the third ingredient in our Life Groups — speaking the truth in love.