Heart of listening

Why listen? Why excel at listening? Scan a handful of the countless resources on listening that Google retrieves in a heartbeat and you’ll find a mixed bag of reasons circling around a common theme: listening “saves money and marriages”, when you listen you will have more interesting conversations and you will learn more, it leads to more productivity in a workplace, and in a world where good listening seems to be on the decline, “you’ll be a standout if you make the effort”. Follow any of these links and you will find sound practical advice based in research that will most likely improve your listening skills. But it seems that the greatest case made for working on this invaluable skill is that it’s your ticket to success; the path to unlocking a host of benefits to your experience of life.

Why listen? It’s a question these articles offer a response to because the fact is, listening is costly. Why should I relinquish my time, my comfort, my own stories, opinions, advice, airtime? The gospel, of course, gives a far richer rationale for not just listening, but excelling at it. As Sarah Condie highlights, listening is essential if we want our churches to be places of welcome, love and connection (and we do!).

What I hope to do here is recalibrate our listening around the Great Listener, the one who looks us hard in the eye like the rich man, seeing every dark corner of our souls, and loves us (Mark 10:21). At the end you’ll find some reflection questions to develop your skill in this area, although my hope is that by the time you get to them you will see that listening is certainly not less than a skill that can be honed with practice, but it is much more. It is a craft. It’s a posture. Listening flows out of the gospel: it can affirm and restore dignity, it can take away shame, it can empower and bring hope. When a Christian listens well, should the experience for the other person be any different than if they were talking to a master listener not connected to the living God? I think the answer is yes. Because for the Christian, your listening communicates Christ to a person, emanating from being seen and heard—and loved—by him.

Listening flows out of the gospel: it can affirm and restore dignity, it can take away shame, it can empower and bring hope.

When we read the accounts of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we see over and over that he listened. Take the encounter with a Samaritan woman in John 4:4-30. John sets the scene: it’s the heat of the day in enemy territory, and an exhausted Jesus takes a load off by the historically notable landmark, Jacob’s Well. A woman enters the scene, and our intrigue is heightened. Jesus cuts the silence. “Will you give me a drink?” (Jn 4:7b, NIV)

Gasp! That should not have happened.

Suddenly we’re pitched into unchartered territory. There is no script for a conversation between these two kinds of people, and the narrative is tingling with an immediacy that is meant to grip us.

The woman is taken aback and tries to Shut. This. Down. ‘You’re a Jew! I’m a Samaritan! And a woman at that!’ This stranger by the well has broken an unequivocal social norm, and the woman could be forgiven for wondering if he might have a screw loose. After all, who else visits the well at this time of day than social outcasts?

But Jesus is not put off by her cue to abort conversation. In fact, from the start, he sees the flesh and soul woman behind the identity markers she throws up to screen herself off, and he keeps engaging with her. Not that those identifiers aren’t real or important to who she is, but Jesus’ operating category for this woman is as an image-bearer of God, made to find life and rest in him.

In response to her surprise, Jesus hints at the fresh, living water that he can offer, if only she would ask. Notice the listening implicit in his response here. He’s heard what she’s really saying, and he addresses the subtext: ‘I know why you’re surprised right now. Men like me and women like you should never interact. We’re enemies. You’re an object of shame. But I have something that addresses those things, and I’m eager to give it!’

As we track the interaction as a ‘listening event’, we see three striking things about Jesus the listener. First, he never loses contact with the deeper content. The woman repeatedly responds to the surface meaning of what is being said. Perhaps this is from ignorance, as we see in her next move where she assumes Jesus is offering literal water and wonders where his bucket is. But it seems that at points there is some intention to keep the conversation in shallower waters and avoid depths where she is more vulnerable. For example, after Jesus reveals his knowledge of her shady relationship past, she pivots away to discuss the far safer and less personal topic of religion (v. 19-20).

It can be easy or tempting in these moments in our own conversations to take the hint and stick to superficial content thereafter. Alternatively, it might be tempting to keep going after depth, at the expense of the person’s sense of safety or control. Jesus does neither. While staying in contact with the deeper content, our second observation is that Jesus never loses contact with the woman. The woman’s pivot away from her personal life is an example of ‘resistance’, a common human behaviour in interactions where we feel threatened or exposed. The woman has communicated twice now that this is a no-go zone (the first is her curt explanation that she has no husband when Jesus asks her to get him). When she segues to religion, Jesus goes with her lead and doesn’t exert control over the conversation. Don’t forget that this is a real-time conversation, and Jesus gifts the woman equal agency to speak and direct the interaction just as he is doing. At the same time, he masterfully uses the change of subject to indirectly—and therefore safely—tack back to what really matters for the woman, explaining the nature of true worship as bringing your honest self to a God who sees all of us (v. 23-24).

Finally, Jesus builds trust and the woman feels safe. Perhaps this is the most striking of our observations, given the cultural context where there is no question that she would have been viewed with contempt given her string of marriages and current partnership out of wedlock. When the disciples arrive on the scene their attitude toward the woman could not be more different to Jesus’. The look on their faces is enough that the woman makes a hasty exit, leaving her water pot in the confusion of the moment. She reports to the people of her village, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.” (v. 29). It’s an extraordinary moment! Shame belongs in the dark, but this woman wants people to know that she has been seen for who she truly is and was not overcome by it. This is an effect of non-anxious listening, to have light shine on a deep source of shame in the presence of a steady, accepting other, and be safe. Jesus is not awkward about her shame as we can so easily be, nor does he retreat from it. Rather, he acknowledges its reality, but sees her in the midst of it, worthy of love.

Jesus crossed the divide of otherness and entered our frame. Listening means letting go of a part of yourself and entering the frame of another. It is a deeply sacrificial act.

Jesus’ example in this vignette with the Samaritan woman is instructive for the listening we are engaged in regularly. But it is one of many listening events peppered across the gospels—perhaps you might like to read more of Jesus’ conversations with ‘listening’ as your lens. Not only is Jesus-the-listener a great exemplar, but he embodies a paradigm that should define our listening as Christians and set it apart from our culture’s typically self-focused motivations. In this narrative, the clue to Jesus’ listening paradigm was in the first paragraph where John lays out the scene. Jesus sat by the well because he was tired. His body was weary from the travel. He might have had blisters on his feet. He might have smelt of days-old sweat. Here was the creator of the cosmos humbly asking to wet his parched throat. When Jesus listens, he does so as the incarnate Son who “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing” (Phil 2:6). Jesus crossed the divide of otherness and entered our frame. Listening means letting go of a part of yourself and entering the frame of another. It is a deeply sacrificial act.

How can we become this kind of listener? Ironically, we begin by doing some talking—by bringing our honest selves to the Great Listener, whose offer of living water is as much for us as it was for the Samaritan woman. Through the daily rhythms of turning to God in prayer with our concerns and anxieties, with our questions and our sin, we can experience the wholeness that comes from being truly seen and understood. Like a child stamping her feet and coming undone at the frustrations of life—be they trivial or weighty—Jesus’ willingness to make himself nothing, even to the point of death, assures us that his stance is as a loving parent who crouches right down, looks us in the eye, puts his secure arms around us and helps us find a way through it. When we know this kind of love, and when we drink daily from this never ending well, we are set up to be listeners who embody the kind of honest steadiness prized in the field of psychology. In this way, simply by listening, we become conduits for the living water of the incarnate, crucified and resurrected Lord, who has done what was needed to validate the fundamental worth of the person you speak to and achieve resolution of their pain and shame, no matter how deep or complex.

Reflection Questions:

  • How often do assumptions built into identity markers (gender, age, race, evident wealth, sexual orientation, physical attractiveness etc.) govern my interactions with people? When do I find it challenging to see the person behind the category?
  • Do I listen for the subtext beneath face value statements: the deeper concern, the vulnerable emotions or meaning?
  • Am I attentive to resistance moments, signalling when the person feels exposed or vulnerable?
  • Am I respectful of the person’s agency in the conversation?
  • When do I find it challenging to be steady and non-anxious in the discomforting presence of another person’s shame?
  • Where in my life do I need refreshment from Jesus living waters right now?

Alison Courtney holds a Master of Arts in Counselling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, USA. She is also a secondary school teacher with pastoral care experience in Christian education. Presently, most of her time is spent raising two young children. When spare time occasionally presents itself, Alison enjoys making art.

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