Along with asking good questions, cultivating the art of listening well is one of the most important skills for Christians to develop today. And it is especially important for those who want to be effective apologists in our “argumentative” culture. Here are three brief reasons why:
First, the Bible consistently mentions the wisdom in listening. For instance, James 1:19 says, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” As a culture, we are easily angered and quick to speak. How many of us are truly quick to listen?
Second, many in our culture increasingly consider Christians bigoted, hateful, and intolerant. One way to counter this, and also to develop a compassionate heart for others, is to genuinely listen to other people and their perspectives.
Third, Americans are spending an enormous amount of time on screens, which can contribute to loneliness and fragmented relationships. There is a genuine hunger to know and be known that cannot be filled by technology alone. Truly listening to people can help bring healing into many people’s lives.
So, how does one develop the art of listening well? Here are four tips I have learned from personal experience as well as through my undergrad Communication Studies program at Biola University:
Tip #1: Remember, most communication is non-verbal.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, when we listen to others we are communicating something. The question is—what are we communicating? If we listen well, then we communicate our care and concern for the other person. When we fail to genuinely listen, we communicate our lack of concern.
As an undergrad at Biola, I remember learning that communication is 93% non-verbal. I have no idea how they came up with that specific number, but the main point is that words only form a small portion of what we communicate. Rather, communication comes primarily through our body language, eye contact, posture, and tone. If you want to become a good listener, start paying attention to your body language.
Tip #2: Train yourself to listen before you speak
I realize this is probably easier said than done. But it’s possible. Like breaking any other habit, it may take some time. Being a good listener is more than just having the right technique. It also involves being genuinely interested in what others have to say. Do you truly care about the opinions of others? If you want to become a good listener, start coaching yourself to listen before you speak. And give yourself some time to break old habits.
Tip #3: Think of the person you know who listens best, and copy him or her
This one is easy for me: my mom is the best listener I know. She leans in when you speak, focuses intently on your every word, and always expresses the right kinds of emotions to match what you are communicating. If she doesn’t understand, she asks for clarification. She puts down technology and makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the world.
Who do you know that listens well? And what can you learn from him or her?
Tip #4: Ask God to help you become a better listener
We can each develop better listening skills. But ultimately, to become a truly compassionate and caring listener, we need God to empower us. According to James 1:5, if we lack wisdom, and have the humility to ask God, He will grant it to us.
My personal prayer is that God will help me become a better listener to my wife, my kids, co-workers, fellow Christians, and to people with very different views than my own. Will you join me?
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher, and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org, where you can find the original version of this article.