It’s been a few weeks since my fingers have danced on this keyboard. Sometimes life happens and by necessity other things have to take priority, but my heart has not stopped thinking about you and yearning to put words to a subject that has made its way into my heart. To briefly recap, the last blog entry talked about the importance of story and its great potential for impact in our lives and in the lives of others, especially when our stories are lived in the context of God’s bigger story.
In the last article I touched on the fact that everybody has a story, and for the most part, everyone yearns to somehow be part of a bigger story. I am confident that there are those who would find this to be an arguable point, for example, those who claim to be loners and live a lifestyle that seems to shut the door on potential relationships. I have had times myself when I too have claimed to be a bit of a loner and wished that I could go live on a mountain somewhere all by myself. While I understand that there are people who naturally tend to be introverts, I believe that the majority of so-called loners are not born that way, but rather they become that way in order to protect themselves from the hurts of this life.
In our original God-given design we were not created to live the life of a loner. God made Eve to be a companion for Adam because He saw that it was not good for man to be alone. And, just as it was not good for Adam to walk alone in the garden, it’s not good for you and me to walk alone in this life. But deep inside, many of us feel like we walk alone even when we are surrounded by people. Deep in our hearts we yearn to be known and loved, but instead we live in fear of rejection if we dare to let other people see the flawed, imperfect people that we are; fear of being rejected if we let others see the deep need of our hearts. We yearn to be pursued, to feel valuable, to be wanted and accepted. But so often the real story of our lives remains locked behind a forced smile and empty or unspoken words.
Recently I had a novel thought when I entered into a conversation about tattoos with a friend that I work with. He has tattoos. I am not against tattoos, but prior to that day I really didn’t understand them. I was telling my friend that I am uncomfortable when I meet someone who has so many tattoos that I don’t know where to look, and I’m afraid that if I stare I will make the person uncomfortable too. My young friend smiled and said, “Look at the tattoos, ask about the tattoos, people get tattoos because they want you to look.” And then I went on to tell my friend about an ex-neighbor that had a tattoo of the Grim Reaper on his arm and how it made me afraid of this man and afraid to look at his arm. My friend proceeded to tell me that maybe the reason my ex-neighbor got the tattoo was to tell a story about a time when he had escaped death. Wow, that was a light-bulb moment for me! The more that my friend talked, the more I began to see that tattoos are a way that people give a voice to their life story.
The conversation with my friend served to add fuel to a growing desire that I have to enter into, and know more about the stories of the people in the spaces and places that I inhabit every day. Untold stories, stories yearning to find a voice. So I ask, what role are you and I to play in helping to unleash these stories? The answer is probably more multifaceted than I can begin to comprehend, but a great beginning would be to start really listening to what people have to say. Author Ralph G. Nichols was quoted as saying, “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” But all too often rather than really listening, people are too busy thinking about how they are going to reply, or thinking about what they are going to do next, or thinking about something all together different. Have you ever been in the middle of sharing your heart with someone only to have them interrupt the conversation to take a phone call, or that person turns to talk with someone else and then they never get back with you to finish the conversation? Ouch! Or have you ever shared an aspect of your story only to have the other person jump on your story with a bigger story of their own, all of the sudden making the story about them and not what you were trying to say? I can attest that it doesn’t feel very good when this happens.
If you do a quick search you can discover many courses and resources that will help you to become a better speaker, but I would venture to say that an even greater need is for us to refine the underdeveloped skill of listening. So how does one become a better listener? This is a question that I have been asking myself, and while I am by no means an expert, I think that what I’m about to share will ring true for some of you.
1. Develop the skill of being more interested rather than trying to be interesting (paraphrased from a former pastor of mine.) In other words, be quiet and listen. There are times when telling our story will create a safe place in which someone feels like they too can share from their heart. But then, when that person gives indication that they are ready to speak, we need to put our own story in the background and allow the other person and be up front and center stage.
2. Ernest Hemingway was quoted as saying, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” We need to silence our mouths, our minds and our environment. The great story that you just remembered can wait, the thing that you are planning to do next can be thought through later, and the person on the cell phone can leave a message. By giving the other person your undivided attention you show him/her that you really care and you really want to hear what he/she has to say. If you can’t give your undivided attention at that particular moment, let the person know that you really want to hear what they have to say, but it’s hard to focus with all of the distractions. Ask the person if there is a better time when you can get together. And then once you’ve agreed upon a time, you need to be the one to pursue the other person and follow-up on your commitment to finish the conversation.
3. We should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (James 1:19.) When listening to someone share the less-than-pretty things about their life, it’s so easy to start formulating an opinion or a judgment about what the person is saying, and then to start telling them what you think they need. Most of the time when people talk they aren’t asking for our opinion, they just want to be heard, understood and loved the way that they are. I remember a time in the early years of my faith when I was sharing something painful from my heart, something about myself that I was ashamed of. Before I could finish what I was saying, this well-meaning person started to give me what felt like harsh advice. Her advice was good, but at the moment it was unwelcome and it hurt. I was sharing a part of my story that I had never told another soul. Her uninvited advice felt like judgment, not love, and it shut the door to any further communication.
4. Listen without an agenda. Listen for the genuine joy of getting to know the person and allowing them an opportunity to be heard. I remember when some well-meaning students befriended one of my daughters, only for her to find out later that she was their “prayer project.” As her mom it broke my heart because I could see that she felt betrayed. What she thought was an offer of real friendship, ended up making her feel deceived and rejected.
A pastoral counselor and minister David Augsburger says that, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” For those who do not know that they are known and loved by God, it may be hard to believe that God hears the cry of their heart if His people aren’t willing to lend a listening ear. Yet, when we take the time to cultivate and practice the art of really listening, we are offering a taste of God’s Kingdom love to the people in our lives. When we enter into their stories with a listening ear, we show that we care about who they are and who they want to be. In doing so, we offer a tiny glimpse of what it’s like to be part of God’s bigger story where we are heard, we are known, and we are loved (Psalm 139.)
I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface, but hopefully something of what I have shared will have meaning for you in your life. Where are the listening opportunities in your life? What listening advice or stories can you share with us? Would you be willing to leave a comment? I would love you to hear from you!
Wrapped in His Love,