Tommy’s wife often gets frustrated because Tommy just doesn’t seem to care when she tries to have a conversation with him. As she walks into the living room to talk with him, his eyes stay glued to the television. As she talks, it seems like she gets very little of his attention. “Uh-uh…sure dear…uh-uh…whatever you want,” he’ll say, all the while never making eye contact with her.
Here is what she wants—nothing extravagant. She wants him to turn off the television, turn to face her, and give her his undivided attention. But he never does.
What Is a Bad Listener?
Are you a bad listener? What would your spouse or best friend or roommate or children say about you? Would they say you are a bad listener? People tend to think much more highly of themselves than they actually deserve. What would you say? Are you a good or bad listener?
What causes a person to be a poor listener?
Impatient people make for shoddy listeners. An impatient listener is not able to appreciate or be fully engaged in her present circumstances. She is not willing to hear her friend out. She interrupts or cuts him off. In her impatience, she communicates that she doesn’t care about what her friend has to say.
Another killer of conversations is tiredness. In a fast paced society, people don’t rest much. Little or no sleep means you are already exhausted when you begin a conversation, which doesn’t usually lead to a good conversation.
Think about your listening abilities during a Sunday morning sermon. How much do you zone out, especially when you are bored with what the pastor is saying? It is easy for the mind to wander to other things—work, what you’re doing that afternoon, a conversation with a friend or spouse that morning, etc. Zoning out or being easily distracted makes for bad listening.
Or you might tend to interrupt others before they are finished. Your thought is so pressing, or your tongue is so loose, that you blurt things out even before the other person is done speaking.
Impatience, tiredness, zoning out, interrupting—these are just a few of the many reasons why someone can be a poor listener. Do any of these descriptions fit you?
Consider the biblical picture of a bad listener—the proverbial fool.
“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Proverbs 18:2).
“If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13).
“Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 29:20).
The biblical picture of the fool is one who doesn’t listen and understand, but speaks too quickly. In Proverbs 18:2, the fool finds pleasure only in saying what he wants to say. Because of his pride or selfishness or lack of love, he doesn’t care about understanding. He is impulsive. He answers before he hears. He doesn’t take the time to hear and then speak. In Proverbs 18:13, because of his impulsive speech, he is deemed foolish and shameful. Or as one commentator put it, this impulsive fool is “stupid and a disgrace.”
Are you the proverbial fool? Be honest. If you are, you might need to confess your lack of patience, love, and understanding before the Lord (Psalm 51:3-4), and to someone whom you have been not listening to….
What Is a Good Listener?
Contrast the proverbial fool with the advice we get from the apostle James…
“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).
James’ encouragement is to be quick to hear and slow to speak. Wisdom and love are displayed in quickly hearing and not speaking.
The profile of a good listener is the opposite of the proverbial fool—patient, energetic, focused. He lets the other person finish without interrupting. Because he is eager to put others before himself, he listens and works hard to understand the other person. He doesn’t think so highly of himself that he regularly speaks before he hears.
Just think about Jesus. Think about His conversations. How engaged He was. How much He listened to others and asked questions in response. How skilled He was at drawing others out, and communicating His sympathy for a person, not just by listening, but by loving them and showing them what ultimately should matter in their life—faith, hope, and love. What would Martha, or Blind Bartimaeus, or the woman at the well, or the disciples say about Jesus? Would they say He was a good listener? Would they say He cared about them and took the time to understand them? Absolutely and positively yes!
Do you want to be like the proverbial fool or do you want to be like Jesus?
Are Pastors Bad Listeners?
Pastors are teachers and preachers. They daily and weekly proclaim God’s Word, and along the way, they grow accustomed to others shutting their mouths to listen. Every Sunday church members sit in silence and listen to the pastor’s words. God’s Word is powerful. It transforms lives. It does not go out void. This is how the kingdom works. God speaks through the instrument of a pastor, and the Word goes out to change hearts and minds. This is all good. And this is God’s redemptive plan.
But transfer this into a counseling room, and things might not go so well. Pastors expect to speak and people to listen. So, after a few minutes of conversation, the pastor might make a few assumptions, speak into a situation with great authority, maybe even quote a Bible passage or two to make his point, and then be done with the matter (and the person for now).
Which one does your pastor resemble in the counseling room—the proverbial fool or Jesus? If you are a pastor, remember: Good shepherding starts with knowing the sheep (John 10:3, 11, 14-15). That requires a lot of you—patience, listening, and understanding the sheep. Be slow to speak and quick to listen. Before you say anything, figure out what your member is struggling with and what is motivating him to do what he does. Only after you understand should you then speak into his life.
The Listening Test—How Good or Bad Are You?
A good way to figure out if you are a good listener is to ask those who know you best. Start by rating yourself on a scale of 1 (poorest of listeners) to 10 (best listener on the planet). To test your rating, ask someone who knows you really well what he or she would rate you. Whether they come up with a different number or one similar to your rating, talk about it with them. You can imagine a husband saying to his wife, “Honey, you said I was a 3, but I rated myself as a 7, am I really that bad in your eyes?” Do this test only if you are humble enough to receive someone else’s feedback. If you are not humble enough to receive godly criticism, then don’t ask for it.
The End of the Matter for Listeners
Ultimately, no matter how good or bad you are, listening is a skill that you can grow in, but you never do it apart from God’s strength (Ephesians 6:10; 1 Timothy 1:12) and His grace (Romans 15:15). Work harder at being a better listener; but remember that God is at work in you to make you more like his Son (Philippians 2:12-13; 1 John 3:2). Praise be to God that Jesus will never leave us or forsake us.
One day, we won’t have to work so hard at listening because we’ll be surrounded by a great throng of believers, from every century, and every part of the world, all praising and singing to God. The singing won’t be overwhelming, but glorious. And there will be no sin—so you and I will be patient, energetic, and focused in our conversations. What a glorious day that will be.