Habits Part 6: Listen Before You Speak

Image from: David Walker

Someone once said that God gave us two ears and one mouth, and we should use them in that proportion. But the truth is, often we speak before we listen. I heard a story once of a man who was on a train and, just as the train pulled out of the station, another gentleman sat down next to him. The man who came and sat down was accompanied by two children and, as their journey commenced, the children ran up and down the carriages screaming and yelling and generally making a nuisance of themselves. This man recounts how he watched as these children ran around and noticed that other passengers were getting annoyed. He looked at the gentleman that sat next to him and thought, “Doesn’t this man care that his children are running riot? Has he got no parenting abilities? I should say something and make him realize that he needs to take action.” But something made the man stop and first ask, “Excuse me Sir, are you ok?” The man with the children was just staring into space, and looked like he was snapped back to reality. He answered, “I’m sorry, what was that?” The first man said, “Are you ok? I just noticed that your children are running around and you didn’t seem to notice, so I just wondered if you were ok?” “I’m sorry” said the man, “we have just come from the hospital where my wife, their mother, just died and I don’t know what I am going to do.” The man suddenly saw the situation quite differently and was then able to counsel the gentleman with children.

It could have been very different. The man could have ripped into him and his children and made a bad situation even worse, but thankfully he took the time to stop and listen first. I have lost count of the amount of times as a Pastor, or even in my work in the marketplace, that my initial reaction to a situation was not the correct one. I have learned (the hard way unfortunately) that most of the time it is better to stop and listen before responding or speaking in situations. More than once, I have gone into situations as a Pastor, ready with my arguments or what I was going to say, and have changed my entire view of the situation after having chosen to first listen to the other person’s point of view.

There is power in learning to listen. The truth is that people everywhere have a need to be heard and, not only heard, but understood. John Maxwell wrote a great book called Everyone Communicates – Few Connect (worth reading if you get the chance). In this book, Maxwell highlights the fact that as a society we are obsessed with communication: the internet, Facebook, Twitter, social networking, mobile phones, video calling, etc, etc. Never before have we had some many ways of communicating with people. However, communication does not equal connection, and meaningful connection is what most people are really looking for. Have you, for example, ever been speaking with someone and you can tell they are not listening because they are constantly looking over your shoulder trying to see the next person they are going to talk to, or they interrupt you all the time, or finish your sentences? I don’t know about you, but that says to me that the person does not really care, and leaves me feeling like I don’t matter. Or have you ever attended a conference where several different speakers were presenting, yet one has everyone on the edge of their seats and seems to be able to make everyone feel comfortable and like he is speaking only to them? Thats connection!

If we truly want to be successful in business, in church, in building teams or even in family life, we need to learn how to not only listen but to understand – to truly connect. The best teacher, the best bosses, the best leaders, the best speakers, are those who learn the discipline of listening. This (like everything we have spoken about) takes a deliberate choice. A while ago, I was in an organization and there was one person who just drove me crazy. In fact they drove everyone crazy, so much so that people would go out of their way to avoid them. One day I decided that I really wanted to work on truly connecting and really listening. I felt challenged in terms of this particular person and realized that by my avoiding or rushing my conversation with this person I was effectively devaluing them, and that was a bad thing as I believe all people are valuable no matter who they are. So I made a decision that the next time I met this person I would choose to stop and listen, truly listen, give them my full attention and engage with them. This person, as it turns out, has some great things to say and in the time since has often encouraged me when I needed it most.

The art of listening is a skill that I believe should be at the top of all of our lists as leaders, as parents and, to be honest, as people. I encourage you, next time you meet someone, to stop and really listen to them. Practice not just communicating, but connecting – you may find some surprising results.

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