January Reflection by Richard Parrish -Listen, Carefully
“But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”
I did hear what you said!
My words were somewhat abrupt, reflecting my annoyance that my wife thought I hadn’t heard her.
I even repeated what she had said, paying close attention to outline the specific points she had made, trying to let her know I wasn’t hearing impaired!
I had heard her. The problem was, I failed to listen!
Have you had that happen to you? Can you recall a time when you were listening to a friend, spouse, or co-worker but the person you were listening to felt you hadn’t heard them?
What was your reaction? How did you feel?
Professional consultants and psychologists validate that listening well is a skill. How well we do has a significant impact on our job effectiveness and relationships.
Wise pastors and spiritual directors understand that listening is an acquired skill, one that demands attentiveness and practice.
We listen for various reasons: To gain information, insight, and knowledge. We lend our ear to another for enjoyment. You would like to think that as much as we listen to others, we’re good at it.
Most are not!
Research studies reveal that we only recall 25 to 50 percent of what we hear. Put that in perspective. When you speak to your spouse, friend, boss, customer, or colleague, they only hear half — or less — of your conversation.
In the conversation with my wife, she understood clearly what she was saying. Although I could repeat her words, I completely missed the message!
That conversation took place years ago. I haven’t forgotten about it. It continues to remind me: Hearing is not the same as listening!
Today, many speak, but few listen.
Words are used abundantly by political parties, church leaders, and social activists. Social media is abundant with excessive speech. But is anyone listening?
Is it possible to get beyond hearing words and understand the underlying message? I believe it’s possible.
The art of listening can be improved. I’m a better listener today than before. I’m not suggesting that I’ve mastered my listening skills (there is much room for me to improve). As a husband, father, pastor, and spiritual director, I continue to work on techniques to help me remain focused on the person speaking.
Before each conversation, I try to remind myself to:
1) Pay attention. I must turn off external distractions. I need the reminder to look directly at the person speaking, let go of distracting thoughts, and stop trying to form a rebuttal mentally. I want to observe a person’s body language because it often reveals a more profound message.
2) Demonstrate that I’m listening. It helps the one speaking know that I’m acknowledging them when I nod occasionally. Allowing my facial expressions and body posture to express interest genuinely encourages the person to continue to express themself. And, when appropriate, even a “yes, or “uh-huh,” reveals that I’m present.
3) Offer feedback (not direction). Each of us has personal filters, beliefs, assumptions, and judgments that can easily distort what we hear. What’s being communicated by the person speaking is their message, not ours. The goal as a good listener is to reflect their message, asking clarifying questions accurately:
“What I hear you say is …,” “Sounds like what you’re saying is…,” “What do you mean when you say…,” “Did I hear you correctly when you said…,” “Is this what you mean…”
These are questions that gently and kindly allow the person speaking to own the accuracy of their message.
4) Refrain from interrupting. How do you feel when someone is constantly interrupting you when you’re speaking? Not only is it rude, but it also limits understanding. Learning to be attentive requires the discipline of patience — and often, silence.
I recall one spiritual direction session where the person I was seeing could not comprehend what was (to me) so obvious. Why can’t they see it, I wondered. But, for whatever reason, he could not perceive what was so apparent to me.
As tempting as it was to interrupt and offer a quick fix, my role was — and is — to listen, not offer solutions, or make judgments. Silence is often the best solution.
5) To respond appropriately. Active listening always respects the person who is speaking. When we pay attention, demonstrate that we are listening, avoid interrupting, and refrain from giving advice or opinion, we encourage a safe and caring space.
Offering a safe space for a person to share their story, questions, concerns, fear, anger, anxiety, or frustrations enhances our ability to listen well. Demonstrating care and the desire to seek understanding requires our appropriate response — even if I don’t agree or am tempted to relieve someone’s pain.
Practicing these (and other) skills can strengthen relationships. I’ll continue to practice my listening skills. But learning how to listen well is not only necessary for others, it’s essential for our self — and God.
God is keenly aware that one of the flaws of his created beings (us humans) is that although we can hear, we frequently fail to listen. Repeatedly, God is frustrated with Israel, who hears but does not listen.
As a child, I was reprimanded more than once for taking cookies before dinner. I heard my mother saying: Don’t have any cookies before dinner. I heard her words but refused to obey them.
To listen well requires that we pay attention, receive, and obey God’s word. It’s not enough to hear God’s word. We must attend to it. That’s the point Jesus is making to his disciples (those who follow him).
Jesus desires our eyes to perceive, and our ears to listen — to incline, attend, and pay attention, which leads to obedience.
I want to listen carefully this year. How about you?
• What is God speaking to you?
• Is there a need for you to become more intentional in removing distractions that keep you from listening to God?
• What will help you pay attention to God?
• What is it that you know God has spoken, but you have failed to hear — to obey?
 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Mt 13:16–17.
 See Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience