Five Ways to be an Authentic Listener

By Jessica Sanford

Recently, I was asked the question “What surprises me most about people?”  I responded, “It’s been my experience that most people simply want to know you care – that you were willing to take the time to truly listen.”  

Notice I did not say “that you were willing to take the time to try to ‘fix them’ or to ‘solve all their problems’ or to engage in ever-so-helpful ‘telling.’” None of these things, no matter how well-intended, convey we care. (In fact, they generally have the opposite effect.)  

Conveying that we care starts with a willingness to listen more and talk less. And lest you think this is something I simply made up on the fly, this idea seems to be a biblical principle as well. James instructs us: “You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry” (James 1:10, NLT). King Solomon put it like this: “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. . . . A time to be quiet and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,7). It is not that we never speak (that would be a little awkward), but it is important to know when to speak and when to listen. 

We complicate things when we get the order wrong.  

I am convinced that connecting each of us is an innate desire to be fully heard and to know with certainty that what is in our heart matters to the person on the other side of the conversation. Imagine how many relationships could benefit from both parties adopting a listening posture!  

Authentic listening is powerful; it brings life; it brings healing; it deepens intimacy and strengthens connection. And it is a gift we all can give.    

Since I am a quieter and a naturally curious person, listening has always tended to be my first impulse. I am genuinely fascinated by people’s stories (and much prefer hearing others’ experiences over sharing my own). However, as I have come to learn, listening simply for “listening’s sake” is not the same thing as being an authentic, active, engaged, heart-level listener. In our conversations, it is entirely possible to hear every word being spoken but walk away having heard nothing at all. Authentic listening is a skill that must be cultivated and developed.  

True, authentic listening 

Is not distracted. 
Is compassionate. 
Is others-focused. 
Does not need to be right. 
Is humble and non-defensive. 
Listens for understanding and not necessarily agreement. 
Can lay aside self-preoccupation in order to see things from the other person’s perspective. 

This kind of listening is hard and, sadly, far too uncommon. Listening on this kind of level is something I have had to learn and develop over time – and I am still learning!  

This kind of listening is impossible in our own strength. We will need the resourcing of the Holy Spirit to help us with this. Perhaps you want to become a better listener as well? 

Here are five ways to cultivate an authentic, active listening posture: 

  • Resolve to be fully present. Set aside any distractions. Put down your phone. Turn off the T.V. Let others know you are not to be disturbed – whatever it takes to be fully engaged. This simple step communicates: You matter! You are important to me. (Nothing is more off-putting than feeling like you are having to compete for someone else’s attention.) Tip: The dinner table is a great opportunity to practice distraction-free, device-free listening. 
  • Do not presume to know what is in the other person’s heart; instead, be a safe place for them to share their heart. Before people will let us see inside their heart, they first need to know they can trust us with it. The truth is, we do not fully know what someone else is walking through, and to pretend we do is naive at best and arrogant at worst. I saw a quote recently that struck me: “Just because someone carries it well doesn’t mean it isn’t heavy.” If I had to guess, I would say there are a fair number of people carrying some pretty heavy loads. People are more fragile than we may realize, so let’s be careful with their hearts.  
  • Trust the Holy Spirit to guide the conversation. I used to put a great deal of pressure on myself to have just the “right” thing to say to someone while the Holy Spirit was working behind the scenes to bring clarity and revelation to that person’s situation the entire time. I simply needed to allow the person the opportunity to “talk it through.” As I listen, I am asking the Holy Spirit to give me some powerful questions that may help the individual think through their situation on a deeper level. I am also asking Him to give me wisdom in how I might respond. How much do I say or not say? Sometimes I have said too much, other times too little. It is not a perfect science, but the more I can lean into the Holy Spirit’s leading the better able I will be to respond in a way that honors both God and the other person.  
  • Remain humble and resist the urge to become defensive. Easy to say – so difficult at times to do. Some conversations are just downright hard, and before we know it listening has gone out the window! (Not speaking from personal experience, of course. Ha ha.) In these challenging moments, when the person on the other side of the conversation is speaking in an aggressive tone or saying some things that we deem to be unfair, we can still honor them by taking a humble, non-defensive posture. (This is where the Holy Spirit will be crucial because in our flesh, we will want to be anything but gracious!) A great response in these tense moments is to say, “While we don’t necessarily see eye to eye on this, please help me to better understand your position.” Another good question to ask is “What do you need from me going forward?” These responses often disarm the other person – letting them know that even though you may not agree with them you still care about preserving the relationship. The less we need to be right, the greater the opportunity to hear what the other person is trying to say. 

    To be clear, I am not advocating that in the spirit of “listening” we allow someone to berate or denigrate us. There may be times when we simply must end the conversation, letting the other person know we will be happy to resume it once they can do so respectfully. God doesn’t expect us to be anyone’s verbal punching bag. 
  • Try not to make yourself part of the story. This is their story. This is especially hard in a culture that emphasizes “self” above all else. We tend to want to make everything about us, filtering our conversations though our own lenses, biases, and life experiences. By taking ourselves out the story we can more fully appreciate theirs. Compassion rises within us when we can see the situation from their point of view. 

Authentic listening communicates that we care. And though not necessarily easy, everyone, with a little practice (and a lot of help from the Holy Spirit!), can be a better listener. I would say it is worth it.  

About the Author

Jessica Sanford has served alongside her husband, Matt, in ministry for over two decades. She is a licensed coach with Leader Breakthru, Inc. and is passionate about making disciples and helping facilitate the spiritual transformation of those not content with the status quo. She also loves seeing women in ministry, especially other pastors’ wives, realize and step into their unique calling.

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