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How to Be a Courageous Listener

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” — Matthew 5:23-24

Listening is in short supply these days.

Arguing? Check. Declaring? Got it. Dismissing? You betcha. Trolling? God, yes. Unfriending? Definitely.

But listening?

The absence of listening has made a desert of our shared conversational landscape. We’re all slowing dying of thirst for lack of it.

It’s heart breaking that in times of such deep conflict and misunderstanding—when true listening is needed most—we have the hardest time actually doing it. Why is that? Why do we struggle so much to really listen to one another when most of us know it’s the one act that would do the greatest good—not just for us, but for everyone?

"Listening to others, especially those with whom we disagree, tests our own ideas and beliefs. It forces us to recognize, with humility, that we don't have a monopoly on the truth." — Janet Yellen

True listening is hard because it requires humility. It’s not about you winning, or you proving your point, or you defending your truth, or you proclaiming your outrage. It’s not about you at all; it’s about us. It’s not about you being right; it’s about us being reconciled. And the work of reconciliation requires you to lay down your ego.

"True reconciliation is never cheap, for it is based on forgiveness which is costly. Forgiveness in turn depends on repentance, which has to be based on an acknowledgment of what was done wrong, and therefore on disclosure of the truth. You cannot forgive what you do not know." — Desmond Tutu

This happens all the time in my work with organizations. People hurt each other. They disagree, sometimes vehemently. They pass judgment on one another, and stir themselves up into opposing storms of righteous indignation, bitter and angry and full of contempt at the darkness and the evil they see in “the other.” Once a conflict escalates to this level, it becomes toxic for everyone in the organization. The entire culture is tainted by it, sometimes to the point that the company’s mission—that is, the reason the company exists—gets totally sidelined by the constant energy suck of trying to navigate through the mine field of contempt and hate without setting off an explosion. Ironically, the toxicity of the combatants becomes much more damaging to the culture than whatever it is was they were fighting about.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? This is what’s happening to all of us right now. The storms of righteous indignation are raging. Anger, contempt, judgment, and hate are swirling all around all of us like debris in a cyclone. We are weary of the constant drain on our souls. We are all feeling the weighted temptation to give in to hopeless resignation—to lose heart. That weary voice in your head is telling you to give up hope. It’s too late. There’s no way out of this mess now. There is no solution. This will only end in violence.

But I’m here to tell you that’s not true. There is a solution. I’ve personally witnessed it work dozens of times in my work with organizations and teams and churches and couples.

The solution is listening. Simple, authentic listening.

And it starts with you.

In most conflict interactions, we stop listening the instant we think “we got it”—you know, we’ve got them figured out, we know where this is going, so there’s no point wasting our time. Or else we stop listening the second we know what we want to say next—whether it’s a clever rebuttal, a brilliant comeback, a forceful argument to put them in their place. Or we stop listening the moment they say something that offends us, something we think isn’t true or fair, or fails to see us as we actually are. We may feel justified in these reactions, but they inevitably work against any kind of reconciliation. How can you find a way forward together if you won’t listen to each other?

“But I can’t listen to them because they’re not listening to me!” I get it. That’s how many of us are feeling at the moment, but it’s a dead end. Somebody has to be the first to break the cycle. Why not let it be you? Like I say to leaders all the time:

Wherever you want others to go, you have to go first.

The way I see it, we’re all leaders now. Times like these demand it of us. We can’t wait for our elected officials to solve this for us. Truth is, they can’t. This is an “us” problem—it’s not just about policies and laws, important as those are. It’s about who we are as a people, and how we want to be with one another. To get to the other side of this, we have to stop facing off against each other and start shouldering up side by side to find our way together.

So here’s your part: The next time you want to stop listening, do the opposite. Lean in and listen better. How? Follow these steps:

1. Listen & Reflect — Slow down and really listen to what the other person is saying. Before you respond, reflect back what you’re hearing, and then ask, “Did I get that right?” Don't move on until they say yes. So much conflict springs from simply misinterpreting what the other person is trying to get across.

2. Ask Another Question — Before you share your point of view, ask another question. What is it you don’t yet understand fully? What are you genuinely curious about regarding what they just shared? Don’t make this an interrogation. Stay open and curious. Be a learner, not a debater.

3. Agree with All You Can — Before you share your thoughts, take time to agree with everything you can about what the other person just said. Finding and naming your common ground lays a foundation on which you can build something meaningful together moving forward.

4. Share your Concern — Rather than jump directly into your perspective on a particular issue or situation, begin by sharing your fear. What’s the deep concern that is driving you to hold the perspective you do? What is the principle or value that you are trying to support or protect? Sharing this first helps keep the conversation personal and humane, and may help the other person relate to your position with greater empathy.

5. Ask for What You Want — For the two of you to move forward together, what do you most need the other person to do? Whatever it is, turn it into a direct request. For example, “I want to continue this conversation with you, but I really don’t feel comfortable doing that unless you’d be willing to…[read this book, watch this movie, take a look at this study, listen to my perspective with a view to understand it rather than debate me, etc.]. Of course, this is a two-way street. Be willing to listen to their requests as well.

In my Christian tradition, we are called to love everyone—including our enemies—with the same love we see in Christ. This is not an easy thing to do, and I fail at it all the time. But even though I’m far from perfect at loving others, I can always choose to take a step toward loving them better—and the very first step of love is to pay attention.

"Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community...Yes, love—which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies—is the solution." — Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thoughts for Deeper Exploration:

"Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens." — Jimi Hendrix

"The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention…A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words." — Rachel Naomi Remen

"One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say." — Bryant H. McGill

"It's a rare person who wants to hear what he doesn't want to hear." — Dick Cavett

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” — Ernest Hemingway

"There is no reconciliation until you recognize the dignity of the other, until you see their view—you have to enter into the pain of the people. You've got to feel their need." — John M. Perkins

"Reconciliation is to understand both sides; to go to one side and describe the suffering being endured by the other side, and then go to the other side and describe the suffering being endured by the first side." — Nhat Hanh

"Emphasize reconciliation, not resolution. It is unrealistic to expect everyone to agree about everything. Reconciliation focuses on the relationship, while resolution focuses on the problem. When we focus on reconciliation, the problem loses significance and often becomes irrelevant." — Rick Warren

"In the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process, which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people." — Nelson Mandela

"May the God of peace arouse in all an authentic desire for dialogue and reconciliation. Violence cannot be overcome with violence. Violence is overcome with peace." — Pope Francis

"The Cross is the ultimate evidence that there is no length the love of God will refuse to go in effecting reconciliation." — R. Kent Hughes

"I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God." — Wendell Berry

"Reconciliation is more beautiful than victory." — Violeta Chamorro

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