My favorite friends are the ones who listen to me, really listen.
Of course, at this point, all of my friends have become excellent listeners out of necessity. For a couple of years there recently I must have spent hundreds of hours sitting across a table from one friend or another pouring out my heart, crying a few tears and hammering out my frustrations. It was just one of those hard seasons of life.
I’m grateful for the women who just listened.
I don’t know if I’m a great listener or not. But I aspire to bring to the table the same gift these women brought when they leaned in and patiently allowed me to unfurl the knots in my heart.
Ah, to unfold and expand!
As I’ve thought about what makes a good listener, I’ve recollected some of the conversations I had with dear friends lingering over picnic tables, sipping coffee in diners or sitting on a sofa with a pile of fresh, unfolded laundry between us. In each case I remember my friends doing a few simple things that unleashed my pent up thoughts, opened the space for me to pour them out freely and then soothed my spent emotions.
The best listeners lean in with more than their shoulders. Anyone can master the mechanics of being a “good listener.” Engage with your eyes, lean in with your shoulders, nod your head occasionally. But it’s pretty easy to distinguish between a “master listener” and a genuine one. The friends who make me feel safe, heard and valued are the ones who really pay attention to what I’m saying. While they may have their own frustrations, burdens or to-do list, they graciously put those aside temporarily in order to focus on the one who is talking to them. That kind of listening begins in a compassionate heart, one that cares immensely about the other person. It isn’t borne out of good mechanics or even good manners. A sensitive, loving and concerned heart compels this friend to lean in with her soul…and maybe her shoulders, too.
Good listeners engage with their hearts and minds. Maybe that’s just the difference between a true friend listening and someone hearing you out that hasn’t really reserved for you any space in her heart. When a good friend listens, she winces inside a little when you bare your wounds, thrills when you squeal over a victory, gets goosebumps when you share how God has worked and bears a little of the weight when you unload a burden. When you share a problem that you’re struggling to work through, she might pick up pencil and pad or pull out her smart phone or Google something on her computer. She’s invested and intends to work through the nitty gritty with you. She’s already invested in you, so of course she engages when you speak.
Finally, a good listener is quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger. Yep, that one is from the Bible. James 1:19, to be exact. This scripture teaches me that listening is always the priority. Honestly, that’s hard to reconcile at times. Often I’m tempted to chime in with my two cents before the other person is finished talking. But good listeners linger on the thoughts expressed by the other person before they formulate their own.Good listeners linger on the thoughts expressed by the other person before formulating their own. Click To Tweet
James 1:19 also indicates that a good listener is one who does eventually speak, but cautiously, carefully. They take pains with their words before launching them into the conversation. Perhaps they even probe a little further with appropriate questions or gentle nudges to “share more” before taking the floor. And then, I think, they resist the urge to lecture or explain or fix or berate. Instead, they begin a conversation, a volley of thoughts and ideas and questions and suggestions.
And what about the admonition to “be slow to anger”? While the original intent may have been a little different, I think the lesson for the listening friend is to be slow to become emotional. I treasured listening friends who expressed compassion for me but who didn’t allow my hurt or despair or embarrassment or jealousy or cynicism to kindle those same emotions within them. In other words, in the long run, I valued their levelheadedness.
Wow! That’s a pretty high calling – good listener. Who knew there was so much involved? But I want that. I want to be that kind of listener for my friends, especially for those who sat or walked with me while I unleashed so freely.
So I’m asking God to develop within me three things that seem to be at the heart of listening well. I’m asking Him for patience (I realize that’s risky!), a compassionate heart and wisdom. I’m asking the Lord to cultivate these three attributes within me so that I can lean in and engage with my heart and mind. And I’m submitting to His work in these areas so I that I will prioritize listening, be careful and cautious with my responses and keep both a level head and a soft heart.James 1:19 reminds me that a good listener has a soft heart but keeps a level head, don't you think? Click To Tweet
What makes a good listener to you? Are you one? Or do you need to join me in praying for God to cultivate this skill in us?
I talk more about the importance of listening in my new book When You Find Another: a Conversation about Friendship among Friends. You can find more information about the book and order it here.