A good listener is never short of friends. Some people are naturals at this popular skill, and you might be lucky enough to know one or two. Plenty of us have to learn the skill of being a good listener, though the kind intention does go a long way, too.
The headline ‘act’ for the Do Lent Generously 40 acts challenge this Lent isn’t about money. Day 31’s challenge is: ‘listen.’
Early on in my time at West Baptist I praught a series of sermons on how we relate to each other, prompted by conversations I was having with people in our church. There is a huge need, everywhere, for good listening from safe people. Nothing builds a sense of community more than people sharing what’s really going on in their lives with each other.
As I said in one of those sermons, I frequently had the following kind of conversation with people at West (and it’s been the same at every church I’ve been part of). A person would confide something difficult to me, and we would talk and pray. Sometimes it was something no one else knew.
At some point I would ask if there were one or two friends they could let in on things for some support. The answer was frequently ‘no’ for one or two reasons. Either they didn’t know anyone who was a good listener, or they didn’t want to risk someone saying something unhelpful while they were feeling vulnerable.
Some of you extraverts will be excited about Chris Duffett’s 40 acts listening initiative (it involves a sofa, a town square and a sign saying ‘I will listen’). Most of us could more comfortably make the world a better place by offering some good, safe listening to someone we know. With that in mind, if you’re keen to offer some generous listening this Lent and beyond, I thought I’d offer some tips I’ve amassed over my years as a sort of professional listener.
1. It’s all about them
Make the conversation about your friend, and not you. Make time for them so you’re not rushing to get to something else.
Pretend you have no voice, and let them talk. Keep your thoughts focused on them and what they’re saying, not on what you might say next.
In other conversations with your friend, it will be your turn, but when you are in listening mode, don’t talk about your own stuff.
In particular, and this is a biggie: don’t tell horror stories! Don’t try to connect with what they’re saying by telling them about other people who have their problem. It takes the focus off your friend and is seldom helpful, despite your good intentions.
Key thing to say: ‘How are you feeling about x at the moment?’
Key thing not to say: ‘That reminds me of…’
2. Be a listener, not a journalist
If you speak at all, ask general, open questions (which can’t be answered just ‘yes’ or ‘no’).
This is to make it clear you are interested, not to satisfy your curiosity and be nosy. You’re a listener, not a journalist. This can be a fine line!
So don’t ask specific, personal things. Your friend may want to express grief, but might not want to expose details.
You might need to be satisfied with what you’re told, and not get to hear what you want to know for curiosity’s sake.
For instance, they might want to talk about how hard it is to be sick, but might not want to talk about personal things like their symptoms or details of their body. They might not want to talk about details of their digestive system, or the particular part of their body that has cancer.
Your friend might want to talk about missing his wife, but not about her shortcomings. Or someone might want to say they can’t have children, but not talk about what the physical problem is that causes the infertility, or which partner has it.
These are all things you don’t need to know to be a good friend and good listener.
Key thing to say: ‘How are you feeling about x at the moment?’
Key thing not to say: ‘What exactly is wrong with you?’
3. You’re not Bob the Builder
Your job is to listen, not to fix – at first, at least.
The first thing your friend needs to do is say what needs to be said, get it all out. If you short-cut that stage, it never gets done and the grief or anger or anxiety will last longer.
So even if there is a clear solution or suggestion you can offer, make sure your friend has said everything before you get to that stage.
Maybe even wait till another day. And ask before you start solving: ‘I have an idea that might help. Let me know if you want to hear it, today or another time.’
This is a big one that I struggle with, and I gather it’s a pretty common one for lots of guys, too. You really want to fix what’s wrong, so you skip to that without making room for expressing the problem sufficiently first.
If you’re thinking about solutions, you’re also probably not really listening to what your friend is saying – you’re distracting yourself with problem-solving.
Key thing to say: ‘It sounds like you’re having a pretty tough time with this.’
Key thing not to say: ‘You should…’
4. Silence is golden
Don’t rush to fill silences.
They’re usually not as long or awkward for your friend as for you. They’re often filled with thinking and feeling and that’s part of the process.
Key thing to say: nothing!
Key thing not to say: anything that changes the subject.
5. Keep your friend in the driver’s seat
Let them decide the direction of the conversation, and follow along where it leads.
Key thing to say: ‘Is there anything else you want to say about that?’
Key thing not to say: anything that interrupts or changes the subject.
6. Don’t look for silver linings or simple answers
Resist the temptation to try to explain why something terrible has happened, or speculate about where this tragedy fits in God’s plan, or look for the silver lining.
You might remember that in the book of Job, his friends speculate endlessly about what Job must have done wrong to deserve all the tragedy that’s come his way.
Not only are his friends wrong (the start of the story lets us in on the secret of why Job is suffering, and it’s not because he did anything) but they don’t make him feel any better!
Often, there are no easy answers.
This is probably the easiest trap to fall into, because we really ache to make our friends feel better. And we sometimes feel powerless to do that. We can’t bring their husband back, or improve their mood, or change their difficult circumstances.
If we don’t realise how valuable just listening can be, we are more likely to cast around for clichés and Bible verses that might be the magic wand that fixes things. But they almost never do – at least at that stage.
Even without having any ‘answers’ for your friend, you have a lot to offer if you simply give them a safe listening ear.
Key thing to say: ‘I wish I could magically make it better. I can’t, but I’m always here to listen and support you.’
Key thing not to say: any guess about ‘why’ something hard has happened.
If you pick one of the 40 acts this Lent, particularly as something to continue in the months and years to come, can I encourage you to make it this one? The world would be a much better place if every person had a good listener in their life. If you are blessed to know one or two, you might like to take the time to thank them for being such a good listener.
If you have older children or teenagers in your life, this would also be a great thing to talk through with them – young people desperately need good listeners of all ages in their lives, and it would be great to develop these skills early.
Perhaps you could point them to this post and ask what they think. What would they add? What does or doesn’t apply to their friendships? Who are the best listeners in their lives?
Which of these skills come most easily to you, and which have you had to work on? What other tips can you offer us for being a great listener? What have you most appreciated in your listeners?