Listening is more difficult than we think it is.
While we are all capable of hearing the words of others and discerning their surface meaning, all of us have had the experience of finding out that we wildly misunderstood the message that a friend was trying to convey to us.
We misread the subtext, the emotion, or the deep desire behind the communication. We don’t catch the tone or the body language and the subtle messages they carried. All of this makes is more difficult than we think to truly listen and understand.
I have often responded to the difficulty of listening by saying, “It’s up to the other person to make their message intelligible to me.” In other words, I have not wanted to put forth the effort to understand if someone is hard for me to understand. Whether the confusion exists because the other person is not a clear communicator, or because the other person is speaking out of pain and anger, my gut reaction is to see it as their problem and their job to make me understand.
If you have a similar gut reaction to what I just described, I want to challenge you to a new approach and a new perspective.
Those of us who belong to Jesus have been shown profound grace, and therefore we are empowered and called to show profound grace to others. One of the key ways that we show this grace is by seeking to listen and understand even when they are being difficult and confusing.
While there is not one all-encompassing key to learning to listen with greater skill and grace, one foundational practice is learning to listen for the hurt instead of simply reacting to the words.
Several years ago I remember being baffled by the way a fellow Christian railed against me for what seemed like a fairly small disagreement over a decision I had made. My initial response was to be offended by her (in my mind) inappropriate words and tone. While I still believe she responded in an inappropriate way, I gained greater insight when I came to realize that her reaction arose because of hurt she was dealing with. I did not help the situation because I was listening to her surface communication and it did not seem reasonable.
I was all facts and no emotion. If I had addressed her hurt instead of addressing facts, I would have been much more helpful.
While it is not an excuse, bad behavior arises from pain. We lash out at people when we feel slighted or forgotten or embarrassed. When we’re hurt, we tend to hurt others. Learning to listen to others means learning to assume that there is a reason behind the interactions that baffle us.
Instead of reacting in kind, we have the opportunity to kindly pursue the reality that is leading to the behavior of others. Instead of responding by saying, “You can’t talk to me that way,” we might respond by saying, “It sounds like this really bothered you.” We can be agents of healing toward others when we show the grace of assuming that while their bad behavior may not have an excuse, it always has a reason.
On top of this, when people don’t spell out the reason they are upset, it is not necessarily because they are intentionally withholding that information.
It may be because it seems so obvious to them that they can’t imagine it needs to be said. If they live by the clear code that it is rude and disrespectful to be late, then they may not spell out to you that they are upset about you showing up late to dinner or coffee or a family event. Most of us are not trying to be confusing.
We simply don’t spell out things that seem obvious. Consider saying sometimes as simple as, “I really apologize because it’s obvious that I’ve done something to hurt you, but I am not sure what it is. Can you help me understand?” Saying this is showing profound grace. It is responding to the great grace that God has given us in Jesus by saying, “God has cared for me, and so now I am set free to think about your hurt instead of my own discomfort.”
Listening is more difficult than it seems. And many of us lose opportunities to build up others and to show grace because we are too busy or offended to seek to understand people.
However, when we respond to God’s grace by seeking to understand, and when we listen for the hurt instead of simply the words, we can be agents of God’s healing in the lives of people who are precious to him.