Time is precious; I’m sure you agree. Only so many hours in a day to get everything done—attending a men’s Tuesday morning Bible study, getting ready for Wednesday’s prayer meeting and fellowship meal, studying for Sunday’s sermon, exorcising the copier’s demons, etc. So, when Mrs. Smith “drops in” to see how I’m doing, surely you can appreciate the challenge I face. Mrs. Smith is a dear elderly saint, no doubt about that. But her decades of service to the Lord have granted her so many experiences to share! I really don’t want to lock my office door or hide from her, but it is tempting, I must confess.
Nevertheless, there is a strategy I employ with Mrs. Smith. I use poor listening techniques to make it clear that I don’t have time to talk—and not just with Mrs. Smith. I do it with others too, and I do it well. Years of practice have earned me the reputation of a poor listener, but do I ever have a lot of time on my hands! Here’s what I do:
1. I interrupt the speaker as often as I can
I don’t let the person finish a complete thought. I change the subject frequently, so that the speaker is not sure what I’m talking about. I interject what I want to talk about rather than taking the time to understand what the speaker is saying. Whose opinion is more important, after all? Besides that, it’s easier to forget whatever valuable insights the other person needs to hear!
2. I get ahead of the speaker and finish his or her thoughts
I’m confident I know more about what the speaker means than he or she does. I undoubtedly can say what the other person is thinking more clearly and efficiently. I’m not a mind reader, but I’m a pretty good guesser!
3. I make sure to distract myself by planning my responses while the other person is speaking
If the speaker wants to talk to me, then surely he or she wants my opinion or my insights to make life better. So, I’m sure to craft a response while the speaker is talking. I take a few of the person’s words and use them in my response. That usually ensures that we have a “meeting of the minds.”
“This is not just any sort of material, a wealthy and meaningful program that is adding depth and purpose to our ministry.” — Paul, Pastor
4. I make sure the speaker knows I’m busy
I’ve learned to do this in a variety of ways. Sometimes, I look at the clock on the wall. However, if the clock is behind the speaker, then he or she might not pick up on the subtlety of those glances. So, I turn to looking at my watch; that’s a more obvious sign that my time is ticking away with each word the speaker uses.
I’ve also learned how to use facial expressions that communicate either boredom or mild frustration (sighing and occasional grunting help a lot with this). If all else fails, I slowly inch away from the speaker during the conversation. I don’t tell the person I have a pressing appointment; I just let my body language do the talking.
5. I do NOT look at the speaker
We communicate a lot through facial expressions. Therefore, to be a poor listener, I do not look at the speaker. Depending on the situation, I might check my phone, continue looking at a newspaper or magazine, count the tiles on the ceiling … you get the idea. (I learned a while ago that if I look at the speaker—especially if my facial expressions match the tone of what is being said—then I would be communicating a level of interest that will only spur the speaker to say even more!)
Being a poor listener in ministry is not always easy, though. In particular, I struggle whenever I have to read through the book of Proverbs. According to Proverbs, it’s the fool who is a chatterbox (Prov. 10:8, 10; 18:2); the wise person uses words with a measure of restraint (Prov. 11:12; 12:23; 21:23). It’s the fool who uses words recklessly (Prov. 10:18; 11:9; 12:18; 18:7; 26:18–19); the wise person chooses words carefully (Prov. 13:3; 14:8). It’s the fool who is a know-it-all (Prov. 18:13; 23:9); the wise person knows what he or she doesn’t know (Prov. 12:15; 13:16; 14:10; 15:14; 18:15, 17; 19:20; 23:12). So, if I take Proverbs seriously, then I ultimately have to confess that it’s the fool who does not care to be a good listener.
A serious conclusion
Of course, I share this “confession” with my “tongue in cheek,” but also with a serious intent: If we are poor listeners, we will not be able to minister well to people. We might know a lot, but being a poor listener ensures that (1) we will not understand how to use what we know effectively with others and (2) others will quickly lose interest in what we have to say, because they are not convinced we really care about them.
If we’re honest, I sure all of us would need to confess that we can be poor listeners at times. So, while cutting all of us some slack, I still would like to impress upon you the critical need for attentive listening. Without it, relationships cannot grow, and ministry to others is hampered.
Having said that, I also realize that improving listening skills can be challenging, given that listening is something we all do to some degree every day. Listening habits develop early in life, and that makes it difficult to be aware of the ways in which we need to change. As you consider each of the poor listening skills above, ask yourself, “How well do I do that?” The better you are at these poor listening skills, the more attention you need to pay to changing how you interact with others. If you’re serious about it, check out some of this week’s other CareLeader articles on listening. And I recommend you ask one or two trusted friends or family members to monitor your use of poor listening skills and periodically provide you with feedback. Becoming a better listener will strengthen your relationships and open meaningful opportunities to bless others.
Sign up for your FREE newsletter!
- The following five skills of poor listeners come from a survey identifying “the top five irritating listening habits” people report based on their experiences; it is found in Larry Barker and Kittie Watson, Listen Up (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).