Listening is difficult, and in a world of sound-bites virtuous listening is underdeveloped in many people’s lives. It may not be a stretch to say that true listening is a lost practice. Arguing without understanding occurs across the board, because its always easier to be “right” and be “righteously indignant” than to live a life of humility. In the next 5 points I’ll try to give a picture of what virtuous listening is and is not. Be on the lookout for a future post on practices to begin to develop this practice in your life.
1. Virtuous listening isn’t about hearing.
I don’t need my ears to listen, but I need to understand the language of the communication. If I don’t understand the language it is part of the work of virtuous listening to learn it. While this principle applies to actual differences in language (i.e. American Sign Language or Vietnamese), it also applies to differences in worldview that shape the different, personal meanings that we each assign to different words (ex. I may associate loving witness with the word “evangelism” but someone else may only associate a bad experience or pushy personality traits with the word).
2. Virtuous listening develops and is a picture of humility.
Humility requires that I give up my right to be the expert, to be the teacher, to be the decision maker extraordinaire. Virtuous listening requires that I let the other person be the expert on their life, on their beliefs and on their experiences.
3. Virtuous listening isn’t just saying “I know how you feel” or “I know what you mean”.
Listening requires me to actually try to understand the other person’s experience from their point of view, to understand their thinking from inside their worldview. I don’t have to agree or accept it as equally valid, but this is a step that I take later. I have to suspend my judgment of the content so that I can value the communicator. We can be neighbors and disagree, but to do so I have to know them as my neighbor not as my enemy. I can’t ever assume to know the entire depth of a person’s experience or thought; I am a visitor that they have let into their own experiential country.
4. Virtuous listening is fulfilling and satisfying.
I have had some of the most refreshing experiences when others have listened to me with their full attention without any expectation that they will be giving me a grade or are keeping score. When they have turned off their cell phone, turned off the music, and made me comfortable in that space through their kind and thoughtful attention.
5. Virtuous listening is not a means to an end.
If I steer my conversation with a friend towards a predetermined goal (and a predetermined response from my friend) I am unable to listen. I am not listening if I am actively thinking of cures for my friend’s problems while they are speaking when they have not asked me to do so. Virtuous listening requires no other result than listening to be good. It is not a means to an end or an easy evangelism tool. It is evangelism. It is the witness that there is a God who listens without ulterior motives, who listens with absolute love and respect for His creation and who cared enough to learn it’s language and experience firsthand.
Let us know what you think about the practice of virtuous listening.