Listening to Love Others
by Becky Harling
I sat on an airplane ready to open a book. I couldn’t wait to dive in and was thrilled that boarding was almost complete, and the seat next to me empty. Just before the doors closed, a lady scrambled down the aisle and plopped down in the seat next to me. She took a deep breath and then launched in, telling me about how she felt about flying. For the next two hours, she never came up for breath. By the end of the flight, I knew what she liked to eat and drink, who she was close to in her family and who annoyed her, what had happened to destroy her last marriage and even how much she weighed. (Mind you, I never asked!) I had never once opened my book. As we exited the plane, she cheerfully called to me, “Thank you so much for the wonderful conversation!” I laughed to myself, thinking, “Well, that wasn’t really a conversation; it was a lot more like word vomit all over me.” It was at that moment that the Holy Spirit reminded me of my responsibility to love like Jesus.
With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, it’s a great time for those of us who follow Jesus to consider how well we’re loving people. Jesus’ call to love is sometimes hard to wrap our head around. Does it mean doing random acts of kindness? Does it mean agreeing with everyone? Or, simply being nice and remembering our manners?
One of the most effective ways to love others is to listen to them. Did you know that it’s extremely difficult for people to feel loved unless they feel heard? Ah, that’s where the rub comes for many of us. We’re busy. We’re frazzled. We’re stressed. Yet, the call to love and listen to heal loneliness remains. Though we have connection at our fingertips with smart phones, loneliness is on the rise. What accounts for this? I believe it is the desire of people to feel heard and known. While social media allows us to quickly scan images and posts, it has limited our ability to really listen and connect.
Jesus said, “Consider carefully how you listen” (Luke 8:18). He invited us to take time and carefully reflect on our listening skills. Though He had a full schedule, He took time to listen to the bleeding woman’s story (Mark 5:21-43), to hear the heart of the woman at the well (John 4) and to respond to the cry of the blind beggar by the side of the road (Mark 10:46-52). He asked great questions and continually drew others out. Through His actions He demonstrated what it looks like to love our neighbor as our self. How do we cultivate a lifestyle like Jesus in our hurried and frazzled lives?
Here are just a few ideas:
Slow Down – The word that perhaps best depicts our society is the word “hurried.” Getting the kids to school, arriving at work on time, attending a host of important events and activities at church, all keep our schedules packed. We hardly have time to know our neighbors let alone listen to them. Here’s the thing, I can’t think of any time in the gospels when Jesus was in a hurry. Can you? What if we decided to get serious about listening and loving the way Jesus did? We might need to consider slowing down and saying yes to less.
Ask Questions – As others talk with you, don’t put your focus on what you’re going to say next. Instead, practice asking questions to draw out more of the other person’s story. As they share their story, ask questions like, “How did that make you feel?” “What happened next?” “How did that impact your life?” Your gentle questions will encourage them to tell you more.
Be present – Let go of multi-tasking. Give others your full undivided attention. This begins at home but should flow out to your community. At the dinner table with your family, put all cell phones away. Focus on each other. When your neighbor or co-worker launches into a long story, look at them and offer your full presence. Don’t allow your mind to wander to tomorrow’s meeting, or what you need to get at the grocery store. Simply listen and lean into their story.
Offer Empathy – One of the greatest gifts you can give another is the gift of empathy. Empathy simply communicates, “Your feelings make sense to me.” When you express empathy to others it triggers a chemical reaction in their brain that helps them to feel valued, loved and connected. Suppose you ask the barista at your Starbucks how she’s doing some morning. She says, “Oh it was a rough night. I hardly slept. I was up all night studying for an exam at the university where I am working towards my degree.” What should you do? Stop. Pray silently. Then offer empathy. It might sound something like this, “Oh, I’m sorry. It must be difficult to come to work when you feel tired. And it’s gotta feel hard working towards a degree at the same time you’re trying to keep up your work hours.” Then the next time you stop by the Starbucks and she’s there, remember to ask her how her exam went. People want to feel connected. By offering empathy and demonstrating concern you’ll be following Jesus’ example of how to really love others.
Focus on Understanding – Not Proving Your Point. At this time in our country’s history we are more polarized than ever. Perhaps a co-worker has a completely different political view- point than you and begins venting about their perspective. You vehemently, disagree. What if, instead of thinking through arguments to correct or persuade, you simply focused your attention on trying to understand their perspective? The connection would grow rather than being severed.
Friend, Jesus’ command to us remains, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). The truth is, you can’t love well, without listening well.
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