The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. — Proverbs 15:31
Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old. — Proverbs 23:22
I was counseling a twenty-one-year-old man regarding his strained relationship with his father when he said, “Rob, my dad said that he wants to take me out to breakfast tomorrow morning to have a conversation with me. Now, when my dad says he wants to have a conversation, what he means is that he wants to lecture me for an hour about all the things going wrong in my life.” He prepared himself to have breakfast with his dad, but he was completely closed and shut down to anything his dad might say to him. Why? Because he was feeling hurt and disrespected by his father’s chronic lack of listening.
“You just don’t get it. I don’t think you will ever understand me.” Have you ever heard words like this from a family member? These words are an indication of a structural flaw in the foundation of the relationship. These words come from a deep place of frustration and are infused with an attitude of hopelessness about the relationship. When we feel that someone won’t even make an effort to listen to and understand our perspective, why should we bother trying to work on the relationship?
Have you ever given your full-and-undivided attention to listening to a small child? Once toddlers get to talking, they can ramble on from one subject to the next. Have you ever locked eyes with that child and fully listened? Did you notice, in that moment, how much the child enjoyed talking with you? The child feels your love, simply through your active and engaged listening.
I remember an incident when my son, Rush, was two years old. I was holding him while I was walking around the house. In my left hand I had my phone and was scrolling through email, the news, and whatever else. Rush was talking up a storm, as much as a two-year-old can, and I was responding with “Yeah, uh-huh. Yeah, uh-huh . . .” Truth be told, I wasn’t listening to anything he was saying because I was lost in my phone. When Rush realized what was going on, he reached up and grabbed my cheek, pulled my face away from my phone, and firmly said, “Daddy, please look at my eyes whenI am talking to you.” I wonder where he heard that before. I want to be the kind of father who gives his children his full attention and listens to them when they are talking.
God Shows Love by Listening
Have you ever considered what an amazing thing it is that God listens to you when you talk to Him in prayer? He gives you His full, personal attention. He is able to do the same for billions of people simultaneously. My brain starts to fry if even two people try talking to me at the same time. The Psalmist writes this in Psalm 66:19–20, “But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me!” The Creator of the universe personally listens to us because He loves us. Listening is a powerful way of loving.
Being Quick to Listen
Consider this powerful challenge from the Lord: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19–20). God’s instruction here is completely contrary to my nature. I am quick to speak, and slow to listen. I often catch myself, while in a conversation with a friend or family member, while they are speaking, giving half of my attention to what they are saying, while the other half of my brain is formulating what I am going to say as soon as they are done.
A few months ago, Amy came to me and said, “Rob, I need to talk to you about something, and I would like to ask you not to interrupt me. Just listen until I am finished, okay?” I was a bit taken aback by her request. “Honey, you don’t have to ask me not to interrupt you. You can feel free to share whatever you want and I will just listen.” Well, thirty seconds in to her speaking, I felt words, responses, push-back, and correction coming up through my vocal cords. This happened at the sixty-second mark as well. Then it dawned on me. Amy had to ask me not to interrupt her because I had a habit of interrupting her. It was a huge blind spot for me. I need to actively ask the Lord to help me reverse my instincts of being quick to speak and slow to listen, applying His command to be quick to listen and slow to speak. Another area where the Lord is growing me is in helping me to recognize that just because I’m thinking something doesn’t mean I have to say it. I am a verbal processor. That means I work through problems by talking out loud (even to myself if necessary.) In some ways, this is a positive character trait, but it can also work against me and hurt my relationships, if I am doing too much talking and not enough listening. Your family members may increasingly push you away if communication feels to them like a one-way street.
Ask for Insight
This is not an easy challenge, but it may bring about significant healing in your family relationships. Ask a few of your family members some of the following questions. You may need to prepare them with a little preamble: “I want to talk with you about something. It’s a little awkward and kind of personal, so please bear with me. I am concerned that I might have some blind spots in how I relate to people and family members, so I was hoping that you could honestly answer a couple of questions.” After the preamble, here are some questions to consider:
- Would you say that I have a habit of interrupting people when they are talking to me?
- When you, or other people in the family, are talking to me, do you feel as if I listen with my full attention?
- Do you think I am a person who tries to understand other people’s perspectives, or am I too focused on just sharing mine?
After your family member shares their answers with you, consider just saying, “Thank you for sharing that with me. I’m going to think about what you said.” Or, if the situation warrants, you could ask them for more insight. “Okay, so you said that I don’t always do a great job giving people my full attention when they’re talking to me. Can you give me an example of that, or maybe a time I did that to you, so I can better understand?” It may be that your family member affirms that you do have an unhealthy pattern of interrupting or not fully listening. If that is the case, it would be an important step of healing to receive and affirm what is being shared with you. “Thank you for being honest with me. I think you’re right that I do have a problem with this. I want to grow in this area, and I will be asking God to work in my heart and change my behavior.”
Sometimes broken and unhealthy communication patterns become locked in, and no matter how many times we try to talk with our family member, it ends badly. For many years, Amy and I had an annual conflict in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It had to do with the volume of gifts and the Christmas budget. My approach was to set a total budget number, and everything related to Christmas needed to stay within the limits of that number. Amy’s approach was to set a budget number, but if there were things she would already be buying for the kids, such as new clothes from the clothing budget, then those items could be wrapped up and given on Christmas. I saw this as “overspending on Christmas,” while she saw it as a way to make Christmas more special by combining existing budget lines. You may think this is small potatoes, but it tapped into deeper issues for both of us. Her family background is “Big Christmas!” Her “love language” is gifts. I came into the conversation with anxiety about our overall financial situation. Because we often failed to share our underlying emotions and values, and because we were more focused on getting our point across (i.e., winning), we experienced years of conflict.
If you find yourself going through the same “script” in every conversation, you may need to use an intentional tool that can help break you out of the old cycle. This tool is called “reflective listening.” The priority with this tool is to improve your listening, to deepen your understanding. Read through the process below. If you think it would be helpful in your next conversation with your sister, consider showing this page to her. Tell her that you want to do a better job of listening to her and understanding her perspective, and that you would like to give this tool a shot.
Step 1: Give your full attention to listening
Your body language can communicate interest or disinterest. Don’t slouch away or stare off into space. Orient your body and your eyes toward your sister so she knows you are actively listening. Put your phone on silent, or better yet, turn it off. Only check your phone if there is an important reason to do so. In that case, say, “I am sorry, I want to keep listening to you, but I need to check this in case it’s urgent.”
Step 2: When your family member is done talking, reflect back a summary of what you heard
“If I heard you correctly, you are saying A, B, and C. Is that right?” If your sister feels that you have properly understood what she is saying, move on to step three. If not, then say, “Okay, please keep talking so that I can understand what you are trying to say.” Repeat this process until your sister feels that you understand.
Step 3: Pursue additional understanding
If your sister indicates that you have rightly understood what she is trying to say in her first round of sharing, take the opportunity to dive deeper. You can ask, “Is there more that you want to say about this? I want to make sure you have a chance to share everything that is important to you.” If your sister then has more to share, listen carefully and “reflect” her words back to her as explained in step two.
Step 4: Thank them for sharing and create a plan for the next conversation
When a relationship is broken, healing takes multiple conversations. It may be wise to conclude your conversation by saying, “Thank you for being honest with me. I think I better understand your thoughts and feelings about this. I am going to think carefully about what you said. When do you think would be a good time to continue this conversation?” It is in the next conversation that God may allow you to share things that are on your heart, and give your family member the grace to listen.
Some Do’s and Don’ts When Listening1 Look for a good time to talk
I am the kind of person who wants things fixed right away. Because of that, I often try to have personal conversations in places or at times that do more harm than good. For example, I will want to work something out with Amy, and because of my impatience I will open a can of relational worms in front of the kids, when it would have been far wiser for me to say, “Amy, there’s something I’d like to talk with you about, but in private. Is there a time in the next few hours when we could come together to do that?”
Don’t ask combative or blaming questions
The goal of this whole process is to create more warmth, closeness, and understanding in the relationship. If Amy chooses to open up and talk to me, the last thing I want to do is make her regret doing so. Responses like these will probably do more harm than good:
- “Why did you do that?”
- “I just can’t understand where you are coming from.”
- “I am trying to listen, but you are not being clear.”
- “It is so frustrating trying to have a conversation with you.”
Don’t focus on disagreement
Your wife may say a lot of things you don’t agree with. Her facts may be wrong. Her feelings may be misplaced. Her accusations of you may be unfair. God may provide a time to deal with all of that, but not now. In this first conversation, you are pursuing a small step toward healing the relationship with her through listening.
Stay focused on the goal
You have one goal here. You want to understand your family member’s perspective, and you will know that you have achieved your goal when she expresses to you that she thinks you understand. The golden words you are looking to hear from her at the end of this conversation (or series of conversations) is, “I feel like you understand me. You get where I am coming from. Thanks for taking the time to listen.”
In the same way that it was probably not easy for you to get this conversation started, it was likely not easy for your family member to share with you. She took a risk in being honest with you. This is a key moment to affirm that. “I know it is not easy for us to talk, so it means a lot to me that you were willing to have this conversation and be honest with me. I want to have a better relationship with you.”
A Final Challenge
Listening is a big deal, because listening is one of the essential ways we show love to our family members. A failure to listen is a failure to love. Not only can a failure to listen hinder our relationships with our family, but it can also affect our relationship with God. Consider God’s call to husbands: “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7). First, God commands a husband to live in an “understanding way” with his wife. As we have already discussed, understanding requires listening. Second, notice the warning at the end of the verse. What is the consequence for a husband who fails to seek understanding of his wife, who fails to show her honor? His prayers will be hindered. I don’t fully comprehend how this spiritual principle works, yet it appears that if a husband is not inclined to listen to his wife, then God is not inclined to listen to him. We should all take heed of this warning! Learning to listen is not only needed as we seek healing in our family relationships, but also as we seek to walk in a daily relationship with God.
An excerpt from “Healing Family Relationships” by Rob Rienow: