The Art of Listening and Speaking

This post is an adapted excerpt from Speaking Boldly: Sharing God's Word Every Day by Edward O. Grimenstein.

We Christians must always be willing to take the time to listen to one another. Then, and only then, is it possible for us to make a proper “diagnosis.” Even though preaching is a primary, trusted means of hearing the Law and Gospel proclaimed every week, it is not the only way. Every day at home, parents have a chance to listen and ultimately speak Law and Gospel with their children (and sometimes vice versa). Every day in school, children have numerous opportunities to listen to one another. Every day at work, adults interact with co-workers in the office. Every day in the community, people interact with their neighbors at the grocery store, across the street, in the bank, in the library, or wherever we find ourselves.

The Harvest Fields

Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Matthew 9:37–38). All of us could, and should, look at our lives and recognize them as harvest fields that are ripe to hear God’s Word, fields in which first we must listen.

When it is time for a farmer to harvest, he doesn’t do so haphazardly. When a farmer looks at the field, he “listens” to the crops to a certain degree. For example, consider sweet corn, a crop people enjoy around the world. A farmer will listen to the crop of corn to see if it is ready. He will listen to the corn when its silky threads have started to turn brown in color. If the farmer is not listening to this sign and decides to pick, the corn will not be ready. He could listen to the sweet corn by puncturing a single kernel. If the liquid that flows is milky in color, the corn is begging to be picked! If the farmer punctures a kernel and gets no liquid, then the farmer waited too long. He was not listening when the corn said, “I’m ready,” and ignored the call. When this older corn is picked, it will be hard and chewy, like long-lost leftovers found in the back of the fridge. If you think listening to a crop of corn is important, imagine how much more important it is to listen to people, who are far more valuable in God’s eyes than corn.

The Act of Listening

Listening to people takes extreme care. You may have never considered that before or even been aware of it. Throughout your day, you are probably listening in a myriad of ways.

We usually don’t think about the act of listening very often. Most college programs still require students to take a public speaking course, and many businesses will offer in-house training on how to give public presentations. What is interesting, though, is the lack of emphasis we place upon listening. Colleges don’t force students to take a public listening course in order to graduate, even though we probably spend as much time of the day listening to people as we do speaking.

What is interesting about listening and speaking is that our topics will often meander a bit. Consider viewing the act of listening and speaking as a stream flowing through a forest. A natural stream never flows perfectly straight. When a stream comes into contact with something it can’t move, like a large rock, the stream will keep flowing; it will just redirect around the rock. If a stream runs up against the roots of a tree, the tree might make a mini dam, forcing the stream to adjust up or down. If that stream runs into a large hill or embankment, it may curve around, winding into all kinds of different patterns. This meandering of the stream as it curves and adjusts is simply normal for a stream to do. Likewise, listening and speaking often change course a bit. This does not mean to say we listen and speak in such a way as to make no sense; that is not what is meant at all. But listening and speaking should adjust to a certain extent to the natural world around it.

Consider the following example:

Your office setting comprises one massive room with rows upon rows of open cubicles. You spend most of your workday communicating via headsets. Conversations among workers usually happen when one scoots their chair over to another co-worker, freeing one earpiece from their headset to talk and listen. On one occasion, the co-worker in the next cubicle over was chatting to you about her son’s baseball game and how it was cancelled due to rain. As you feel the conversation is winding down, you begin turning your head and body to face your computer so you can get back to work. However, you notice out of the corner of your eye that your co-worker did not make a similar movement. It seemed she wanted to keep talking.

All of a sudden, your stream of conversation is going to hit a rock, meander to the side, and take an unexpected twist as she says to you, “It’s probably best that the game was rained out because”—she hushes her voice and leans in so only you can hear—“I just found out my husband has cancer, and to be honest, I wasn’t really in the mood to sit through a game.” As the tears well in her eyes, she leans back in her chair, straightens up, and turns back to her computer screen. You, the listener, just had a bomb land in your lap. In the blink of an eye, the conversation switched from rained-out ballgames to a matter of life or death. For whatever reason, your co-worker felt comfortable to confide in you.

So, listener, what happens next?

Someone shared a moment of vulnerable disclosure with you; they basically just spilled their guts. What do you do now?

Don’t you wish someone could throw you a life preserver in these situations? It would be so helpful to have a prescription that if A is said, you would automatically respond by saying B. I think it is safe to say there are probably not enough books in the world to tell you how to respond in all of life’s situations. I’m sure you can recall some instances when you thought you knew a conversation was headed a certain way and you were ready to prescribe the right “cure.” Out of the blue though, the conversation shifted and you suddenly found yourself in uncharted territory. No doubt a scary feeling. This is why it is so important that we are willing to meander with people a bit when listening to them.

Discover more ways to listen and respond with the help of the Holy Spirit.

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