“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.”- Bernard Baruch, an American financier, statesman, and Presidential Advisor to Wilson and FDR.

I learned a lot from Stephen Covey’s book, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” and one of the key lessons was on listening. It was the first time I saw it explained in the five levels:

  1. Ignoring. Some even call this ‘spacing out.’
  2. Pretending. Where one is somewhat patronizing, only going through the motions.
  3. Selective Listening. Hearing what you want to hear, from your perspective, filtering out the rest.
  4. Attentive Listening. Hearing the words but not grasping the intent.
  5. Empathetic Listening.

Empathic listening is with the ears, eyes, and heart – for feeling, for meaning. We identify with the speaker, emotionally putting ourselves in their place. It’s powerful because it gives additional data to work with, instead of projecting and assuming our own thoughts and motives. The essence of empathic listening is that you fully understand, emotionally and intellectually. Empathetic listening improves mutual perception and a clearer understanding of expectations which builds relationships and creates trust.

When we can learn the simple habit to see things from another’s point of view, a whole new world of understanding is opened. The deepest need of the human heart is to be understood, respected, and valued.

Listening with just our ears isn’t good enough. A study done in 1967 by Dr. Albert Mehrabian, a Professor of Psychology at UCLA, created the 7-38-55 Rule of Personal Communication. He noted that only 7% of communication is contained in the words we use. How we say our words, or the tone and feeling reflected in our voice, is 38% of communication and 55% comes from body language. We must listen with our ears, eyes, and heart to be effective.

In my experience, many people look at conversations as a competition. People just take turns expressing outrage or opinions. It’s one point of view versus another and they must ‘out do’ each other. Funny, since both parties are coming to the conversation from a different point of view, there can be truth in both sides.  Then there is “I can top that” syndrome where one listens such that their reply will best the previous comment. It is silly to try to win conversations. It’s not a conversation if no one is listening. How about we listen and not think about what we are going to say next?

When I take the time to listen; my chances of being “listened to” are very good. At a Sales Training seminar I learned a technique, ‘Diagnose Before You Prescribe.’ This sales philosophy paralleled the medical practice. There is no confidence in a doctor’s prescription unless there is confidence in the diagnosis and the diagnosis is built on emphatic listening. As a sales person I need to fully understand the customers issues and their pain points first before I can offer a solution. Covey calls this “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Listen first, talk second is the correct principle in so many areas of life as a sales rep, manager, coach, parent and spouse. It’s the mark of a true professional and caring person.

The attitude that is most helpful in becoming a good listener is the willingness to listen. It is a choice. It requires patience and provides consideration of the other side. Listening to others and taking time to understand is showing respect. Respect does not mean agreement. Agreement isn’t nearly as important as understanding. You can always agree to disagree. Pursuing understanding creates a safe connection. Trying to get people to agree with you only makes them defensive and less likely to listen. We need to have a firm center but with soft edges.

I’m reminded of a debate from January 2018 between Princeton University Professor Robert George and Union Theological Seminary Professor Cornel West. Professors George and West are longtime friends despite deep fundamental disagreements about some of the most important questions of our time – religion, politics, and morality. What they shared is a great example of a spirited debate forged by empathetic listening with a commitment to disciplined inquiry and a shared pursuit of truth even with whom we disagree. They ended the night clasping hands in prayer.

In Proverb’s Chapter 18 we read twice of fools who would rather speak without first listening. Verse 13, “Whoever answers before listening, theirs is folly and shame.” In Verse 2, “Fools take no delight in understanding, but only in displaying what they think.” In the New Testament, James 1:19 says “Know this, my dear brothers: everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.”

Few prayers are more universal or better loved than the “Peace Prayer of Saint Francis.” This prayer gained in popularity between the two World Wars. St Francis of Assisi may not have written the words of the prayer attributed to him, but he certainly lived them. These words communicate the heart of the Gospels:

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled as to console,

to be understood as to understand,

to be loved as to love.

As the adage goes, “God gave you two ears and one mouth. Use them accordingly.” What if we as Christians were known as great listeners? To listen to God, to obey God we must listen with our hearts, our minds, and soul. Only then will we hear the quiet whispers of the Holy Spirit within us. The more we engage in emphatic listening with God, the more He opens our hearts and the better listeners we are with others. Giving God and others our complete self when they are speaking, is an act of love.

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