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Ministry Matters: 6 Ways To Become A Better Listener

One would think that the art of listening is a ‘given’ with pastors’ wives. I mean, we spend SO much time listening to people- we listen to our husbands preach, we listen to the elderly tell of their physical ailments along with stories of yesterday and yesteryear. We listen to complaints and accusations. And sometimes we get to listen to encouragement and sincere compliments. We listen to the suffering and the dying so as to know their last wishes. We listen to stories of adoption and new birth so as to share in the smile that just keeps on going.

We listen A LOT. But, I wonder if we are merely hearing at times….listening yes, but perhaps not listening well? Perhaps we don’t let the words sink into our hearts deeply enough to empathize, to pray? Maybe we don’t listen past the obvious and into the heart of the one who is speaking?

There is nothing quite so disheartening than getting brave enough to share something meaningful or sorrowful to us, only to discover that the one we have chosen to talk to is not listening. I recall several conversations with pastors’ wives where I as a brand new pastor’s wife began to share something close to my heart, only to realize it was not being heard. I’ve had many similar conversations since then with people of all ages and stages. That sinking feeling…it’s awful. And yet we have all been the ones disappointed, and also the ones to disappoint.

So….no matter how good of a listener we think we may be, there is always room for improvement. But how? It’s a discipline that is, frankly, rather unpleasant at times, especially in our instant information society.

 I am tired….I do not want to be hearing Aunt Bessie’s never ending physical ailments right now. I have a lot on my mind…I don’t have anything to give to Mr. Grasshopper’s woes. I’m hurting…I don’t feel like listening to how well everything is going for my friend. I have noise limits…I just want my child to be quiet for a few minutes. I am weary….I wish my husband would keep that church matter to himself and not expect any logical input. I am broken….I can’t bear to hear one more success story while my own life is in shattered pieces.

On and on it goes. We don’t think these things. But then again, we do. We listen selfishly, which often ends up as not listening at all, and certainly not listening well.

There are a few things you can do to train yourself to listen well.

1. Sit outside with your eyes closed.

I know, it sounds a little strange. BUT you will be amazed at what you can hear with your eyes closed that you cannot hear with them open. You can do this at the beach, in the woods, in a field, in a city, etc. Close your eyes, listen hard, and notice what you can hear that you would otherwise miss. It may surprise you! This exercise teaches you to hear beyond surface sounds- hear details, identify background noises, and even sounds that you can’t quite figure out. Most of the time these sounds just blend into your hearing and you never notice them. Until you close your eyes and focus on listening. You may also want to keep a list of what you hear during your listening session. I guarantee your list will end up longer than you ever thought possible. Try it!

2. Take a music history or music appreciation class.

Again, it might sound like a crazy idea. But it will forever change the way to listen to music and everything else too. A few years ago, I took a music history class as part of the Royal Conservatory master’s program I worked on in Canada.  I went in thinking I was going to learn a ton of facts about music and composers from years gone by. And I did- the exam was all about recalling and writing those facts for 3 hours! BUT along with the facts was this really neat training to listen deeper into a musical score, to analyze a line of music with its corresponding words, and to understand the direction and purpose of the notes being arranged the way they were. It took me a few weeks to develop my ears to hearing past the tune. But once I did…wow. I’m a totally different listener now because of it. That skill has bled into other areas of life and has taught me to always look and listen for what I cannot initially see or hear.

3. Repeat facts back to a person while in conversation. 

Not only does this help you remember details and follow a conversation, it lets the speaker know that you are listening and comprehending. No more “uh-huh” allowed.  Even in your marriage.

4. Discipline yourself to intentional rest and a slower pace of life {whatever that may look like for you.}

Our time of sabbatical has been life changing in so many ways- so much that it’s often hard to express. I am so grateful that we did this while we are still fairly young, so we could develop some vital habits for the rest of our lives. Here in the USA, we have had to work hard to slow our life pace down. But part of what happens when you slow down is that you begin to actual experience things with your five senses instead of just doing things. You start to really smell, taste, and enjoy your food. You start to notice things you would otherwise miss. You start to notice how things feel in your hands and against your skin. You can recall more blessings. And, you have time and the desire to listen, really listen to nature and to people. Some of our listening ability {or disability} is directly tied to how we use our time. Busy people don’t listen or remember. Restful people listen and have a better chance of remembering.

5. Ask God to help you be a better listener. 

I know what it’s like to be a weary pastor’s wife who is listening to the hundredth person on a given Sunday. It’s fairly easy to arrive home and have all of your conversations turn to mush. There have been times when, in trying to relay a conversation to my husband, I couldn’t remember who told me what, or when, or where. It’s never good to wish old Aunt Bessie a safe delivery and a new young mom a happy hip replacement! In these times of mental exhaustion, turn to God and ask for grace. “God, I’m so very weary, but I want to care for these people well. Help me to listen and remember details and follow through with prayer on their behalf.”

6. Listen PAST what a person is actually saying. 

Words are just that- words. They do expose the heart of a person; yet often the way they come out is clouded with emotion or fallacy, often without them even realizing it. When you listen, be mindful of the fact that for as much as a person is saying, there is often that much or more that they are not saying. Hear the heart. Connect words with pain. It’s fairly easy to connect happy words with joy, but we often forget the many ways that words express pain. A good listener detects the emotion that a person may be feeling, and responds to that in truth and love. Be that person- the one who listens past the noise of words, and who gets to know a person’s heart better.

So…nothing earth shattering here. But seriously? We can all do better in this area. Let’s commit to cultivate the vital art of listening, and ask God to give us grace to improve. I’m thinking we should start with our husband and children, and then use that art on the dear people God has given you to love in your ministry.

Who’s with me?


A Kindred Spirit