Truly listening well is one of the hardest things we will ever attempt.
When we listen, we must occasionally let go of control, let go of certainty, open ourselves up to the possibility that something—someone—else might be right, and we might be wrong.
It’s not always a comfortable place to be, as I well know.
But truly learning how to listen has been one of the most powerful experiences of my life. Beyond the fear and uncertainty there are riches to be gained beyond all worth or imagining.
Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”
Now it is impossible to ask or seek if we are not first willing to listen.
There is a surface-level kind of listening—the kind of listening that enables one to replay ideas to reveal superior comprehension or a great deal of routine labor, like one might prepare for a timed essay or exam. You understand the concept at a surface level, you can pull it apart and put it back together to get the job done, but the why behind it doesn’t penetrate deeply. Or again, as Jesus phrased it: “They hear but never understand.”
But then there’s the deeper kind of listening—the kind that means actually opening yourself up to the possibility that an idea might be true. Might be real. Might be valid.
Sometimes it requires looking beyond the delivery (either charismatic and effectively persuasive or poorly communicated and disjointed) to the actual meaning. Anything worth saying will have more behind it than we might expect, and anyone worth saying anything will definitely have a good reason for saying it. And sometimes we won't even realize something is worth listening to until we actually give it a chance.
Obviously, we can't listen like this all the time. Sometimes we are in a better position to listen in this way, and other times we are not. Sometimes we’re tired. Sometimes the person or idea we are being asked to listen to is just downright obnoxious or offensive. And sometimes, for the sake of our own health or peace, we must push everything away and have quiet. But that only works when the voices we’re listening to are telling us something that’s not helpful for us to hear.
There are times when listening to what someone else is saying is exactly what we need.
Now I heartily hope that I desire to seek what is true. And if I care about the truth, and someone is saying something I need to hear, what is to be done? How do I listen without losing myself, without falling apart?
This is a question I have asked so many times, over and over again.
I don’t know that I can tell you the answer to this question, in so many words. I’m still working on it and wrestling with it, too. But here are some of the things I’ve found to be helpful.
I do want to be very clear that I don’t think listening well immediately translates into changing one’s belief’s or values. It simply means evaluating them honestly and openly, whatever the results may be.
And it’s one thing to say, “Let’s listen well!” but what does this actually look like? Where do we start?
1. Recognize fear for what it is (and it’s okay to be afraid)
If you find yourself getting inexplicably angry, irritated, loud or irrational because of what someone has just said or done or tried to persuade you of—chances are there’s something about what you’ve just heard that makes you afraid. Uncertain. Uneasy.
But why do we feel this way? How do someone’s words have such an effect on us?
Sometimes a statement is made and it has certain implications, implications you just can’t stomach. What is to be done? Or maybe someone is hinting at a reality that means you might have to change the way you’ve always responded or acted in a certain situation.
It’s okay to be afraid! Really, it is. Usually it’s our natural first stop. And in fact, it’s a good sign, because it means you’ve at least listened closely enough to recognize possible danger. But it’s helpful to not deny that you’re afraid, but rather own up to it as quickly as you are able.
2. Be honest
I often think back to a moment in a class discussion during my freshman year of college.
It was our first semester. We were discussing Plato's Republic in a dreary windowless basement with white walls, and we were doing it terribly. Our professor had asked the opening question and was now letting us flounder around by ourselves in a swamp of ideas and philosophy not only new, but utterly strange and very disturbing to us. We weren’t listening well—to the book or to each other.
Then one of my classmates spoke up. She looked angry.
"This is stupid. What are we even doing? What does any of this stuff have to do with anything in real life anyway? Why even bother with any of this? I don’t get it. "
We all sat there, stunned. Shocked that she’d been so brutally honest out loud, in class.
But our professor smiled.
“A great question. I’m glad you asked. Because that’s exactly what we’re all here trying to figure out.”
A change in atmosphere, a sudden shift in perspective became almost palpable. The question needed to be asked, in fact was begging to be asked, by all of us. We were all feeling lost and confused, but what if my classmate hadn’t spoken up? We very likely would have continued on the trajectory of poor listening and become more and more frustrated with each other and what we were reading. We would have missed out completely on anything remotely beneficial Plato might have had to say (and if you’re wondering, he has quite a bit).
But we didn’t. Because Anna listened, and responded with honesty, and with courage.
Her openness and raw gut reaction voiced out loud ultimately became a turning point. No more purposeless spiraling. Finally, our feelings—our frustration, fear, complacency—were out in the open, and we knew what we had to do.
It’s funny. Students often think that speaking their mind—what they’re actually feeling and thinking, not just what they think the teacher or their classmates want to hear or parroting the cultural conversations in vogue at the moment—will make them sound stupid or weak. But I have rarely found this to be the case, in my own educational and personal experiences or in my teaching experiences.
Rather, honesty is unbelievably helpful. It gives you (and others) power, provides clarity. If you don’t believe me, try it sometime; the results may astound you.
3. Find a friend
This one is step-in-step with “be honest.”
And honestly, I’ve learned to do lot of praying whenever I encounter a new idea or situation that I’m not sure what to do with. God is my helper and my constant friend when I don’t know where to turn. When I give my honest uncertainty to him right away (even if my questions are ones that might seem to exclude him like, “Does God even exist?”) and ask for guidance, I watch him take that simple request and do wonderful and sometimes unexpected things with it, even if it takes years for me to see the results. But they’re always worth it.
Trustworthy and wise people are a part of this process, too. There’s nothing more terrifying than a scary idea left to itself in our head, free to roam at will and wreak havoc and mayhem up and down and throughout our often-fragile psyches. Some of us are perhaps more self-controlled than others, and can quell these crazy mind ramblings, but the rest of us are left rather tangled and confused and alone like Dante in that dark forest where “the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
There is a freedom and a peace that comes with communicating our thoughts out loud. It can very difficult to do, and often we will not like what comes out, and it may not even sufficiently capture what we mean or want to say. But that doesn’t mean we still shouldn’t try.
When you’ve read or heard something that overwhelms you or if you want to learn more about something that intimidates you, find someone you trust, someone you know who will not freak out if you need to ask some honest questions or process the strange or foreign ideas you’ve just encountered and your maybe less-than-admirable response to them (someone who will not let you get away with simply overlooking something that bothers you), and let fly. Ask them if they’ll take the journey with you. See if you can get to the bottom of what disturbs you so much. Discuss what is good and what is bad, what you agree with and don’t agree with. Again, do your best to be honest about your experience.
4. Give it time
A new or foreign idea can really play tricks on us when we first discover it.
There’s the shock factor, the horrified “how have I never noticed, seen or understood this before?”, the sudden enormity and weight and terror of a new idea or concept, especially if that idea or concept is communicated in a particularly persuasive or effective way. Or if that person (or book, or film, etc) has a great deal of authority, experience, or charisma attached to it. I find that it is often people’s actions (and the harmony of their actions with consistent words) that have the strongest influence over me.
Something’s very newness or unfamiliarity seems to lend it weight. So I’ve learned to have a hearty suspicion about anything that’s remotely new or foreign to me. After a little time has gone by, and I’ve examined my own feelings and response a bit more, I can return to that new or foreign idea, concept, etc, without so much panic. Sometimes it just takes time to more fully understand what it is we’re dealing with, to see it from more than one angle or persuasion, to give ourselves time to wrestle and probe and test.
This is the reason why we have clinical trials for new medicines and drugs, why we don’t hire someone for an important job or position without placing them on probation for a while. It’s also the reason why C.S. Lewis said to read old books. They’ve been around for a long time—plenty of time for countless generations of readers to find their holes and flaws.
With new ideas, however, we don’t always have this luxury. Caution is a good idea, but don’t let it turn into irrational fear. There’s a difference between these two. Time heals many wounds; it also helps us listen with less frightened ears.
5. If it’s true, let it change you
This is the hardest, but also potentially the best, part of truly listening.
Sometimes we can do all of the above, and still be terrified, or intrigued, or confused…and in the end that might be a good thing.
Allow the journey of honest and careful listening take you on an adventure. Don’t shut it down, don’t push it away. There might be a reason why a question, idea or person’s life sticks with you and won’t let you go, seems to hold you prisoner until you find the answer.
Plato wrote famously about the allegory of the cave in The Republic (yes, that same pesky, confusing old dialogue that so frustrated my classmates and me all those years ago). He said that it’s painful to leave a dark cave and emerge into the sunlight, especially if we’ve lived there all our lives and it’s all we know. But it’s also worth that pain and darkness and struggle—worth it to leave what is false and untrue and pale behind us if it means we’ll get to find more abundant life, enter a more perfect reality.
So my last thought is, I hope you won’t be afraid to find the truth. You might find it in unlikely places, and in unlikely ways. It can be terrifying at first, possibly painful for a long time—but if you do finally recognize it for what it is, please don’t turn away. Embrace it.
Just think—isn’t it incredible what a little listening can do?
Once I wondered what wisdom Plato could possibly have to offer me!