It’s a lost art. And because we are no longer good listeners, people today feel more alone, ignored, insignificant, and isolated than ever before. So I resolved to start out 2018 by improving my own listening skills, using the acronym EAR.
Last week, we looked at “E”, which stands for enquire. After I listen to someone who is speaking, I will ask or comment about at least three things he said, and none of those enquiries start with “I.”
This week, we’re concentrating on “A,”—attention.
When someone is speaking, we need to give him our undivided focus. This means no eye darting, watch peeking, interjecting, or mind wandering. Paying attention goes hand-in-hand with enquiry—if we aren’t concentrating on what the speaker is saying, we will not be able to enquire.
But today we have to contend with an even bigger challenge—interruptions. We grasp cell phones in our hands while the world buzzes around us at a million miles an hour—a world that expects us to be at its immediate beck and call. How can we be good listeners despite inevitable interruptions?
To show an example how interruptions can cause us to be poor listeners, let me reintroduce Amy. If you remember from the last blog, Amy is telling me about the bad day she had. Since I now know about the “E”, I’m planning to enquire about at least three things she says when she finishes. Therefore, I am paying attention. A minute into the conversation, however, my message notification sounds.
Of course, if we turn off our phones , we can avoid one less distraction. But let’s be realistic. I’m a mom, and since I’ve received two calls from my daughter telling me that she has been in a car accident, and one from my son, who is about to get staples in his forehead, that phone will never, ever be turned off.
So I peek at my phone, and, Thank you, Jesus, it’s a weather alert telling me to expect yet another Michigan day with accumulating snow and a teeth-rattling wind chill. I turn back to Amy, but now I’m not real sure what she’s talking about since I missed some of the conversation. I’m just starting to put the missing pieces together when my phone rings. I glance at the screen and see that it’s Walmart. I’ve been waiting to hear from them, so I dither in indecision for a moment and finally decide I should take the call. When look back up at Amy, I realize she’s still talking, and now I’m totally lost. So I interrupt Amy and tell her I have to take the call.
At this point, two things could happen:
- Amy could throw up her hands in frustration and walk away while I’m on the phone. Can you blame her?
- Amy has the patience of a saint and waits until I’m finished. After I hang up, however, I look at Amy. “Sorry, but I’ve been waiting for that coffee maker to arrive at the store. Ours broke a few days ago, and we’ve only had it for a year!”
Amy nods in commisseration. “Nothing lasts anymore.”
“Tell me about it…” and off I go on a tangent, Amy’s plight forgotten. When we finally part, it later dawns on me that I never did find out about Amy’s bad day. And even if we had gotten back on track, there was no way in heaven that I could enquire, since I had lost the thread of the conversation during all the interruptions.
So, what’s the solution? Since I can’t haul everyone who wants to speak to me up to the peak of Mount Everest, I’ll face interruptions when I’m trying to be a good listener. How do I focus when my phone, other people, and circumstances around me are also vying for my attention?
Let’s replay the Amy conversation with a stress on the “A.”
When Amy begins speaking, I’m attentive—the model of an astute listener. Then my message notification sounds. I wait until Amy ends a sentence and then touch her arm.
“I’m so sorry,” I tell her. “Would you mind if I checked this text to make sure it’s not a problem with one of the kids?”
Amy will, of course, say, “Absolutely, go ahead and check.” She has kids too.
I check the text and then turn back to Amy. “Thanks. You were saying?..”
I haven’t missed any of the conversation, and I assure Amy that her bad day is important to me.
Amy continues, and now my phone rings. Although I’m embarrassed, I once again ask Amy to hold her thoughts while I check the call. It’s from Walmart and I need to speak to them. I answer the phone and ask the Walmart representative to hang on for a second.
“I am so sorry,” I say to Amy. “I really want to hear what you’re saying, but I need to take this call. I’ll only be a minute. Can you wait?”
Amy may feel frustrated, but she’s reassured that I want to listen, especially because I asked the Walmart rep to hold. I take the call, and when I’m finished, I look at Amy. “Sorry again. Keep going, please.”
Amy finishes her story, and, since I’ve paid attention and heard every word, I can now enquire.
This conversation, however, takes place when both Amy and I have time to talk. Sometimes, despite our best intentions of being a good listener, an important interruption will necessitate that we end the conversation before the speaker finishes. Maybe the interruption is a phone from a family member with a problem, a child who is crying, or a dental appointment in half an hour. When I find myself in these situations, I politely interrupt the speaker, apologize, assure her that I care about what she is saying, and then ask if I can call her later to finish our discussion. I set a reminder on my phone, so that I don’t forget, and I contact her when I have time to listen.
As humans, we must not allow interruptions to cause us to stop paying attention when someone is speaking to us. James 1:19 reminds us, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…” (NIV)
I’m so thankful for our big God’s promise that there will never be an interruption at his end. He focuses his attentive ear on his people’s prayers without a shadow of turning. “…if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.” (John 9:31, ESV)
My prayer is that we will all demonstrate the love of God by becoming sincere listeners.
Next week, we’ll conclude the series with “R.” See you then.