Listening

Tip #6 in our series “Cultivating wellbeing in a church community”

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
– James 1:19

“To answer before listening – that is folly and shame.”
– Proverbs 18:13

When was the last time that someone really listened to you? They were so attentive to what you were saying, they put their phone away, they didn’t step in and give you their opinion. They simply listened.  And you felt heard and understood.  What was that like for you? 

I recall one time when I was feeling quite burdened. My three work colleagues sat with me as I shared with them what was on my heart. They let me speak and they listened. They asked gentle questions. They didn’t try to fix my issue, pass judgment, or tell me their own stories. They stayed with me. They sat. They listened.

listening goes beyond simply hearing what people say. It also involves paying attention to how they say it and what they do while they are saying it.

I left that conversation feeling lightened and that my load had been shared by people who cared. I had been comforted and encouraged and yet, as I thought about it, they had not offered words of comfort or encouragement; they had simply listened.

Leigh Sales, in her book Any Ordinary Day, interviewed a number of people who had been through a traumatic event to find out what had got them through and enabled them to keep on keeping on. Almost every time, one of the key things that had helped was that there had been someone who had listened.  Simply listened.

Job’s friends did this well to start with.[1]  They sat, and they listened. But then…they opened their mouths and spoke unhelpfully until finally Job says:

 “I have heard many things like these; you are miserable comforters, all of you! Will your long-winded speeches never end?” Job 16:2

It is so much easier to open our mouths and speak.  In the book of Proverbs, the fool delights in giving his own opinion and makes no attempt to understand.[2]

 Kate Murphy has researched the neuroscience, psychology and sociology of listening and has found that listening goes beyond simply hearing what people say. It also involves paying attention to how they say it and what they do while they are saying it.[3] In other words, it’s about noticing what they communicate non-verbally. This communicates almost more than the words coming out of their mouths.

Listening is also about how you respond. Job’s friends responded badly.  Listening well involves asking good questions.  Rather than interrogating, you gently help the speaker express themselves. 

In a recent book about listening, Adam McHugh noted that “the major obstacle to growth in our listening abilities is that most of us think that we’re good listeners.”[4] Just like we will never run a marathon without practice, dedication and hard work, becoming a good listener begins with a commitment to becoming a better listener and developing that listening ear.

If we want our churches to be places where people feel welcomed, loved and connected, becoming good listeners is essential.  If we are to be people who love our neighbour, who show compassion and empathy, listening is essential. 

As McHugh says:

“Therapists I know say that many of their clients meet with them simply because they are not being listened to in their most important relationships. Without diminishing the value of professional therapy, I would argue that the fact that we pay millions of dollars annually for people to listen to us indicates our poverty in this arena. Everyone is talking, but so few people are truly being heard.”

Wouldn’t it be great if our churches became known as places where you will be truly heard? 

Cultivating the art of listening in our churches:

  • Pray that God would make you a better listener
  • Praying for one another – ask what you can pray for and listen to their answer
  • Connecting with one another – take the time to notice your neighbour, stop and be willing to ask them how they are and listen to what they say
  • Hospitality – at your table over meals, ask one another questions and listen to the answers. Be interested and curious.
  • Sharing – if you want to share your faith and invite your friends to an event at your church, be willing to invest in this relationship first, get to know them, listen to their thoughts, their views and beliefs
  • Commit to reading one of these books on listening to learn more:
    • You’re Not Listening: What you’re missing and why it matters by Kate Murphy, Penguin, 2020
    • The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction by Adam S McHugh, IVP Books, 2015
  • Be reflective – think back on some conversations and how you responded:
    • Were you fully engaged in focusing on them or were you distracted by your phone or what was happening around you?
    • Did you try to find out more?
    • Did you give advice, pass judgment or fill in the silence with your own words?
    • How might you have responded differently?
    • Be willing to ask the question “are you ok?” and listen to the answer.


[1] “Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights.  No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.”  Job 2:13

[2] Proverbs 18:2

[3] Kate Murphy “Talk Less.  Listen More.  Here’s How.  Lessons in the art of listening”, New York Times, 9 January 2020.  You’re Not Listening: What you’re missing and why it matters by Kate Murphy, Penguin, 2020

[4] The Listening life: embracing attentiveness in a world of distraction by Adam S McHugh

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