Sacred Listening

by Gina Manskar

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.

—Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

I am not a natural-born listener. When someone shares a problem, my instinct is to fix it. Most people don’t like this. They want to create their own solutions. But almost everyone appreciates a chance to talk things through, to be heard. “I just need you to listen,” my husband would say. 

Listening is not like hearing; it is not something that just happens. And often there isn’t even much hearing happening during our conversations, because we allow ourselves to be distracted by our thoughts or what is going on around us. Listening is the most fundamental part of conversation. 

Listening is an active process in which a conscious decision is made to understand the messages of the speaker. Active listening, a skill that can be developed with practice, is a way of listening attentively and intentionally, acknowledging the speaker along the way. Active listening is about being patient, responding (a conscious choice) rather than reacting (an instinctive fight-or-flight action). Listeners practice getting comfortable with pauses and short periods of silence, allowing the speaker time to explore her thoughts and feelings. 

Applying a servant attitude in these communications—making our eyes, ears, and hearts available to others—is critical. The practice of active listening can help us to remain neutral and nonjudgmental in conversation. Listening doesn’t require an opinion. Often in our conversations we feel pulled to express what we think, especially when we don’t agree with the speaker. Choosing to simply listen can remove that temptation. 

In this age of rapid and radical change, learning to listen well is especially important. We are being called to engage in difficult conversations. This is a tremendous challenge, one we cannot meet without God’s grace and support for each other. It will test our commitment to the gospel of love. It will stretch our ability to be faithful to the gospel message, because it asks us to focus less on being right and more on learning about one another—especially those whose culture or worldview is different from our own. 

The goal of these conversations must be giving someone an opportunity to be heard and understanding his perspective, not changing the other person’s mind. Often, when we listen to understand, we find it changes our own hearts and minds. It is a powerful form of acknowledgement and a way to carry out the commandment to love one another. And we know that love never fails. Our hope lies in that.

Excerpted from “Sacred Listening” by Gina Manskar. Originally published in Alive Now, Jan./Feb. 2017. Copyright © 2016 The Upper Room.

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