Back in my younger adventurous days I attended a five-day conference sponsored by Rev. Moon and his Unification Church. We attended plenary sessions regarding their theology and participated in small group sessions led by members of the Unification Church. My small group comprised parents of young people who had become involved with this group and Christian pastors who had been invited to the conference. Emotions ran high as parents sought to understand why their children would embrace this perspective of spiritual life and as pastors sought to defend their theology. I have never been good at arguing my point (well, don’t ask my family about that!) and chose to spend the first small group sessions just sitting, observing the group dynamics at play, and listening. In fact, I listened for two full days, not saying a word, except for asking for clarification regarding certain points of conversation.
What did listening do for me? First, it helped me understand the group dynamic itself. Without an understanding of the relational makeup of a group, genuine communication and meaningful interaction will suffer. Second, it helped me understand the nature of Unification theology: it helped me hear what was really being said from their perspective. We tend to hear through the filter of our own perspective and experience in ways that can skew our understanding of another’s view. So I worked very hard to put myself in their place and put my own ideas aside for a moment.
By the middle of the third day, I was ready to constructively enter into the conversation and speak from an informed position that was not rooted in emotion or the need to defend my theology, to participate in a way that could lead my group leaders into a deeper questioning of their own beliefs. As I questioned their positions based upon the inconsistencies I found, I was increasingly confronted with responses like “I don’t know” and “Well, I am not sure.” At the closing banquet on Friday evening, my small group leader introduced me to a vice president of the Unification Church who had flown in from New York City. In the midst of the conversation, he said to this executive of the Unification Church, “Paul knows our theology better than I do!”
Too many of us have lost the powerful art of listening. Listening opens up tremendous opportunities for learning and growth and strengthened relationships. Listening helps us truly know another person and understand the dynamics that are in play in our relationships. How can we more effectively practice the art of listening?
First, know God intimately. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God” (NIV). Do you only know what you think you know about God, or have you stilled yourself before him enough to truly allow God’s Holy Spirit to take you to depths of understanding and relationship that you could never find on your own? The more deeply you know God, the more effectively you can accomplish the next step.
Second, know yourself and be at peace with yourself. Very often our need to be heard, to defend ourselves or our beliefs, to feel that our ideas, beliefs, perspectives are valued, keeps us from taking time to truly hear another person. We can be so preoccupied with our own thoughts, desires, and interests that we spend little time tuned in to the life, interests, and needs of others, even our own family members. To come to the place of saying with Paul, “I have learned to be content…” (Phil 4:11), is to enter into a new realm of personal peace that allows us to hear in ways we otherwise could not. When our identity and purpose are rooted in the creative energy of God and a growing relationship with our Creator, we find freedom to not be threatened by others and truly listen to their ideas, their perspectives, their heart.
Third, grow in love. Love allows us to enter into another’s life in ways nothing else can. If I love, I want to know the person, to protect them, to journey with them in growth and maturity. The capacity to most effectively listen does not begin with our ears or even with our mind, but with our heart.
Fourth, take time to build relationships. Listening takes time. Perhaps time is the best gift we can give to family, to friends, and to the world we desire to introduce to Jesus.
I earlier referred to listening as an art. Perhaps it is more accurately described it as a discipline. It is a discipline that we desperately need to develop if we are to fulfill the mission that Jesus has entrusted to us. Take time to listen. You will be blessed by what you hear!