Thomas Porter

Why is listening so important? Listening speaks one of our deepest needs: to be understood or to feel understood. Yes, we might like people to agree with us, take our side, but it is a great gift when we feel that the person understands us, even if the person does not agree with us. It shows the person cares. It develops trust. It connects us.

Listening acknowledges and honors the other’s uniqueness with his or her own stories and truths. We each need to tell our story, and we each need to hear the other’s story. Being listened to provides the opening we need to tell our stories, to express feelings and ideas we would otherwise be afraid to voice. In many ways the greatest gift of listening is that it enables us to go deeper into our own stories. Often I don't know what I think until I hear what I say. ... Listening which includes asking questions, can lead the other person to greater understanding and clarity about themselves.

Listening is important to the person speaking, but it is also important to the listener. ... Listening creates the possibility of learning and being changed, enriching our lives. If we do not listen, our creativity, flexibility, and ability to grow and learn is diminished, our universe is diminished. Through listening, we can understand how we have harmed another, and also how we can make things right. Hearing has consequences, and these consequences can be redemptive.

Believing that we experience God in the flesh, incarnate in life, we can acknowledge that God speaks to us through the other. We, therefore, need to listen for God’s voice in the other, who is created in the image of God.

Listening Practices

  1. Create the space for listening. We first need to create the space for being attentive, mentally and physically, to what the other has to say. The mental space is the most important--a space within ourselves, a space that is open and receptive and caring. This involves prayerful preparation if the conversation is a difficult one. When time does not allow for this preparation, we can suggest a time when we are able to be mentally and physically present. The most important part of the physical space is what we create with our own presence and body language, including an open posture and a welcoming tone of voice. ...
  2. Ask good questions. A good question is open-ended and builds on what has been said; it takes the person deeper into their story. In the early stages of a conversation, these questions might be primarily clarifying questions, questions for understanding. As a conversation progresses, good questions open up more aspects of a person’s story, the deeper levels of the story. ...
  3. Summarize and paraphrase. Simply summarizing or paraphrasing what you have heard is a good way to make sure you are hearing correctly and to show others they have been heard. Paraphrasing puts what the other person said into your own words. You say what you have heard and ask if you have stated the concern, emotion, or content correctly. Recognize the emotions as well as the words.

Adapted from The Spirit and Art of Conflict Transformation by Thomas Porter. Copyright © 2010 by the author. Used with permission of Upper Room Books.