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Listening to Understand

“When I don’t listen to understand, . “If you can’t explain it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation.” -Haruki Murakami

I’ve always been interested in improv. It’s such a fascinating construct to put people together and have them work off the natural energy and flow of conversation to create something funny. There is something special to the way improv seems to mirror the risks inherent in relating to one another.

I heard a comedian talk about the necessary elements of improv and a few stuck out to me. You have to really listen to what the other person is giving you in order to develop the scene. There’s a concept that you should be the servant to the other character - not denying what they give you...you want to make them work less, not more. But how can you do this effectively? There is some sense of trust...some sense of knowing where they are trying to go. You may not agree with it, but you’re going to go there with them.

I’ve written before about this concept of listening to understand versus listening to reply. When we listen to reply, we’re building up our argument, listening for the gaps in what someone is sharing, digging in where we think we’re “right” and waiting for our moment to share this with the other person. Listening to reply is more about your reply and less about what is being communicated to/with you.

The opposite is true when we listen to understand. When we listen to understand we’re trying to really get what the person is saying...what’s behind their message...how can I make them work less, in one sense...how can I really connect with the person behind this message?

Here’s the problem - when I don’t listen to understand, I’m not really listening at all. I’m protecting myself. I’m protecting my precious construction of what makes me comfortable. I’m refusing to consider that someone else could have a different experience that feels equally as comfortable for them.

What are we afraid of in listening to understand? Why do we think listening = agreement? Agreeing says “I hear what you’re feeling/believe/saying...and I also feel it/believe it/say it too.” And by building up this notion that in order to really listen to someone means we have to agree with them, we have missed out on the opportunity for connection. We give lip service and “listen” - but we’re really just receding into our own minds, waiting to respond, waiting to prove our point, waiting to build our walls of comfort higher.

What would happen if we listened more? Are we afraid we’ll lose our faith? Do we see others becoming less and less committed to the Gospel because they listened? If the Gospel is our ultimate barometer, why should we fear listening to each other to understand?

In counseling, it can be difficult to hear someone tell their story. What is true about what they are saying? What is being stretched? Why are they telling me this? Yikes...I don’t think that’s healthy or true...I should probably make sure they know that….

But what happens when I share these thoughts before I’ve connected with the individual/couple/group sitting across from me? It’s cold and calculating. Here’s how to fix your problem. We might think that is precisely what people are looking for when they come into counseling, but more often than not, they really need someone to connect with them. Someone that is willing to say “I hear you, and I see where you are right now.”

I think we have failed as the Church in doing this for a hurting world. We have put more work into being the ones heard rather than the ones listening. That last sentence will make some of you squirm. It makes me uncomfortable. Because my mind immediately says “No! We have the truth! And everyone needs to hear it!”

But there is a subtle nuance here I want to sit with this week: if I do the work of listening to understand, will someone be more willing to do that work with me? And if they are, can I trust that the Gospel really is the power to change both of us? If I am more informed by this truth than my own comfort, will I actually be drawn closer to the person of Christ with someone else?

I want my faith to give a resounding “yes” to all of those questions. But I admit that I doubt. I doubt with all the pain in the world that “listening” is really helpful. But I think it’s worth trying. I believe Jesus listened to people really well. I believe Jesus did this to connect with them and draw out of them the image of His father that exists in all of us. I want faith to listen this way. I want to listen to understand so I connect better with people, and by that, both of us connect better with Christ.

Who in your life can you work harder to ‘listen to understand’ this week?