I took a listening test this week. No, it wasn’t a hearing test. My ears are fine. But I wanted to test my listening. The test was developed by Doug Pollock, author of the book, “God Space.” Pollock serves as an evangelist and chaplain but has equipped thousands of Christians to share their faith more effectively. He questions whether non-Christians in our society today have stopped listening to Christians because Christians have been such poor listeners. Ouch! Let me share what I learned.
He starts by asking some simple questions. Do we fidget or get restless and impatient when others are talking? These are obvious signs that we really don’t enjoy what the other person is saying. I thought of times when I was too rushed or too distracted to really engage. If I’m expressing impatience, it’s going to shut the other person down and close the door to meaningful communication. Pollock also asks about interrupting the other person and finishing their sentences. I thought of the admonition in James 1:19 to be “quick to hear” and “slow to speak.”
The questions got more intrusive. He asks whether we answer before really understanding the other person or give our opinions before hearing them out. I thought of times when I’ve gotten caught up in a game of conversational tennis, lobbing back and forth disconnected thoughts and opinions without ever really listening, learning or engaging. When I fail to listen, I set up a conversation that resembles a couple of dueling monologues. Proverbs 18:13 warns, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” Even when we admit the truth of this proverb, we can claim an exclusion when talking with non-Christians because we think that we’re right. But a failure to listen doesn’t get God’s approval just because we’re trying to speak His truth.
Pollock’s questions gave more indications of whether our goal is to really hear the other person or just say something ourselves. He asks whether we lose track of what the other person is saying or misinterpret and misunderstand them. Why do I think that someone else would listen to me when I’m clearly not listening to them. I know that I’m not listening to the other person when I contradict their opinions rather than meeting them where they are and engaging them at the point of their understanding. Proverbs 18:2 warns, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” The goal of any conversation needs to be learning something about the other person not just having an audience for our own thoughts and opinions.
When I served in Japan, I experienced so much difficulty in being understood that I was forced to listen more intentionally. I would lob gospel truths to the people I was talking to and they would so seldom be returned that I began to try and study why. I would ask questions about the conversation while having a conversation. I would say things like, “Do you understand what I just said?” “Is that confusing?” “What do you think of that?” I began to realize that a monologue wouldn’t work. I had to understand where the good news connected and where it was being misconstrued. At the same time, I learned the value of listening to the culture. I saw how valuable it was to understand the other person’s assumptions and worldview and also to be more aware of my own.
I fear too often as Christians we’re content as long as we’ve ‘told them the truth.’ But Proverbs would call that approach to communication foolish and the gospels would show that it’s a far cry from the model that Jesus set for us.
May God help us all to be better listeners. And as we work at learning more about the people God puts around us, maybe we’ll find them more eager to listen to what we have to say as well.
In awe of Him,