Listeners Are Born, Then Unmade

Warning: This article may cause psychological pain by revealing that you are not a good listener. If you can’t handle the truth, stop reading, cover your ears and yell, “I can’t hear you!”

cant hear youAttentive listening should come naturally. Newborn babies easily gather and synthesize information, picking up words, facial expressions and other nonverbal cues from their parents and siblings, acquiring volumes of tacit knowledge about people and the world. But somewhere along the way, many of us lose the ability to listen to other people well. In the area of listening, we become socially challenged. Yet we are largely oblivious to our handicap. In fact, we develop sophisticated strategies to pretend that we are listening, and to convince ourselves that we are listening, when in reality we are not fully present with others nor hearing them out to the point of understanding.

Are you a good listener? Type that question into a search engine, and you will find dozens of quizzes that can help you gauge your interpersonal listening skills. Take one of these quizzes if you like. But if you really want to find out what kind of listener you are, give the quiz to a person close to you – your roommate, your spouse, or one of your teenage children – and have them answer the questions on your behalf. Go ahead. I dare you. I triple-dog-dare you.

Why do we stop being good listeners? Reasons vary from one person to another. But one common cause is that, deep down, we feel that no one has ever truly listened to us. Someone very significant in our lives, perhaps a parent, was too preoccupied to listen to us, or wouldn’t allow us to speak freely, or wouldn’t ever validate our opinions or emotions. From that time onward, a great deal of what we do in life, and how we interact with others in one-on-one and group settings, will be motivated by an unfulfilled desire to be heard.

I have a sneaking suspicion that within the church, many of these unlistened-to people gravitate toward leadership roles that involve preaching and teaching. I’m not saying that every pastor has a frustrated inner child crying out for people to listen. But no one is immune to that tendency. My unfulfilled desires to be heard always there, lurking in the shadows, impacting my work and relationships. It has taken me a long time to realize this painful truth about myself, and it is only within the last few years that I have started to understand how my childhood experiences and background (a) make it difficult for me to listen to others, and (b) make me easily hurt when people interrupt me, brush me off or otherwise refuse to hear me out.

It is not uncommon for two people to leave a conversation with very different impressions. One may think, “I listened to her very patiently,” while the other thinks, “He didn’t hear a word I said; talking to him was like bouncing off a brick wall!”

Listening doesn’t mean sitting there quietly and giving the other person a chance to talk, waiting until she has finished so that you can then make all of your points and correct her wrong thinking. A poor listener may allow others to get their words out. But he maintains a stoic posture, not allowing himself to be challenged or changed by those words except in a most superficial way. That stance was described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together: “This impatient, inattentive listening really despises the other Christian and finally is only waiting to get a chance to speak and thus to get rid of the other.” Ouch.

Scot McKnight said, “To love a person is to listen to them, and to let their voice speak. To listen to a person is to let that person’s world into our world.” Listening is much more than hearing another person out. It to share in the thoughts and feelings of another person, allowing them to penetrate your being and change you in discernible ways.

In fact, I would say that listening is the primal act of love. You have not loved a person if you have never listened to them to the point of being challenged by them and hurt by them and changed by them for the better. A parent may say to a grown child, “I’ve done everything for you. I’ve fed you, clothed you, and paid your college tuition. I’ve sacrificed so much out of my love for you. Why are you so ungrateful?” All that may be true. But if the child feels that she hasn’t been listened to, she will feel unloved.

Here is another painful quote from Life Together about listening to others in the Church.

The first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives us God’s Word, but also lends us God’s ear. We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. So often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to offer something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people seek a sympathetic ear and do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking even when they should be listening. But Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either; they will always be talking even in the presence of God. The death of the spiritual life starts here, and in the end there is nothing left but empty spiritual chatter and clerical condescension which chokes on pious words. Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others, and finally no longer will even notice it. Those who think their time is too precious to spend listening will never really have time for God and others, but only for themselves and for their own words and plans.

The greatest strength of evangelical Christianity may be its emphasis on teaching and proclamation of the word. But that strength may also be its greatest weakness. If we produce disciples who can stand up and boldly announce what they believe but give short shrift to what others think, what have we done? Created an army of clanging cymbals?

Pastoral listening is not a kind of therapy in which the leader allows people to air grievances in order to feel better so that they become more teachable.  It is not a technique to help us achieve some other goal. Listening itself is the goal.  Let’s put it another way. We are not trying to give people the impression that they are being heard. We are trying to give them the privilege of actually being heard, a precious gift that many rarely experience it in their families or in their churches.

We don’t become better listeners by forgetting about ourselves. Ironically, good listening usually requires us to pay closer attention to ourselves. It requires us to become more aware of the overt and subtle ways that we shut others down when they try to speak. These include:

  • Lapsing into evaluation and giving quick advice, comfort, rebuke or encouragement. (That is what Job’s friends were doing.)
  • Coming up with theories about why people are saying something instead of asking them and taking their words seriously.
  • Telling people that they need to be more balanced, that they need to remember the negative things as well as the positive things or vice-versa. (None of us is in a position to judge for someone else what is balanced for them.)
  • Telling people that they ought to see things more objectively. (All human beings are limited and inherently subjective.)
  • When someone shows weakness or pain, treating it as a spirit of sinful complaining or self-pity. (Job, by the end of the book, was complaining bitterly against God. And the Bible says that in doing so, Job did not sin. God prefers honesty to play-acting and spin.)
  • Making dismissive comments such as, “We know that already,” “We learned that already,” “We’re doing that already,” and so on. Even if those things are true, it does not mean that you have a right to stop listening.
  • Sending inappropriate verbal and nonverbal messages while others are speaking. Showing disapproval by frowning; making light of people’s stories by joking or laughing; remaining silent and stone-faced when someone expects and wants you to react; and so on.
  • Thinking we can learn more about what a person thinks or feels by remembering some Bible passages or verses and applying them to him or her, rather than actually listening to what the person says.
  • Telling someone “I hear you” or “I understand you” because you think you have experienced something similar. A good listener doesn’t need lots of sympathy or empathy, especially if it’s not genuine. Rather, he needs something called interpathy, which means that he pays close attention to the differences between his own experience and the experience of the speaker.

And here is one more that I have used frequently, to the chagrin of my wife and daughter:

  • Telling someone that you won’t listen to her unless she stops being so angry, unless she stops whining and complaining and calms down and speaks to you in a more reasonable and respectful tone.

In other words, I was saying: “I refuse to interact with you until you adopt the language and communication style that I deserve.” Does anyone have the right to impose that requirement on another person? Not even God has claimed that right! Isn’t it interesting how, when you read the Psalms, so many of these prayers are full of anger, vitriol and other unpleasant and raw emotion? Yet God heard those prayers and accepted them and sanctified them. It’s not wise to hold other people to a higher standard than the one God holds them to.

And please, just one more, because I can’t resist. (Can’t you just hear my inner child crying out to be heard?)

  • When someone begins to reveal sorrow and pain, quickly telling them that they need to pray and bring it to Jesus; advising them to first solve their spiritual problem before God, and then bring it up with people later.

Yes, Jesus wants to bear their infirmities and carry their sorrows. But until Jesus returns, we have been appointed to be the Body of Christ in this world. We are to be his hands and feet and mouths and especially his ears. To be “in Christ,” as the Apostle Paul so frequently described, is to share in the mystery of his suffering and death for the sake of all humanity. The gospel requires us to start listening, long and hard, to people’s stories of sin and sorrow and pain, rather than telling them to stop whining and soldier up.


  1. Hi Joe, thanks for your essay; there’s much food for thought. Can you tell me, where in your list would you place providing a venue or opportunity in which people are free, nay, encouraged to honestly express what is in their hearts? I suppose doing so would indicate a willingness to listen. Would you say that a willingness to listen is a first step?

    Also, my wife frequently tells me when I try to speak when she is talking: “I want you to listen to my problem, not solve it for me!” I realized that the problem isn’t the problem, but how she feels about it is the problem, and her solution is to voice her feelings. Once she feels that her feelings have been expressed and acknowledged, the actual problem is oftentimes resolved very easily.

    • Joe Schafer

      Hi Joshua.

      With regard to your first point: Don’t get me started. OK, you got me started. When one leader or a group of leaders believe it is their job to call meetings and set the agenda for a faith community, I think it is essential for them to provide opportunities for members to tell alternative stories, including ones that seem opposed to the community’s dominant story, and to listen carefully and validate those stories. If they fail to do so, they gradually lose the ability to see what God wants to do among them. I think that is what Bonhoeffer was describing when he said that not listen to one another eventually makes us deaf to God.

      About your second point: This is what I’ve experienced. Whenever my wife brought up a difficult subject, I wrongly assumed that she wanted me to do something about it and fix the problem. So whenever she mentioned a problem, I felt burdened and tried to end the conversation as quickly as possible, which only made matters worse. My assumption that I was supposed to fix all the problems became a very serious barrier to listening. Where did I get that idea? Perhaps it came from misunderstandings about marriage and leadership. Somewhere along the way, I had picked up the idea that (a) the husband is always supposed to maintain a posture of strength and leadership over the wife, being something like a father figure, and (b) a leader is one who is always supposed to diagnose problems and prescribe solutions. The problem with that theology is simple: It doesn’t work! Gradually it dawned on me that my wife was not interested in sharing a home with a master-problem-solver. What she wanted and needed was a friend, someone to create a safe environment for her where she could simply be herself and express herself and say anything, even outrageous things, and be heard and accepted, not judged or corrected. Living with me year after year when I tried to be a master-problem-solver or master-thought-corrector must have been unbearable. It’s a miracle she didn’t leave me.

  2. This is an excellent point Joe, “We are to be his hands and feet and mouths and especially his ears.” I’ve always thought of Christ-followers as being the “hands and feet and mouths” of an invisible God…but it is sobering to note that we ought to also (and especially) be His ears.

    One thing I’ve observed about written communication is the value of questions. I’ve learned that if I don’t ask questions, I have no right to expect helpful responses. And if I ask too many questions, my thoughts become rhetorical. Sometimes rhetoric is powerful, such as in the last four chapters of Job where we find at least 77 questions– all with rather obvious answers such that no answer can be given.

    So here is my attempt to listen to your article by reacting to your questions. By the way, I view dialogue as a sort of pinball machine. Someone presents an idea or concept and then various people react honestly. As the idea bounces around, we are all edified until the idea falls out the bottom of the pinball machine.

    You asked some questions…

    “Are you a good listener?”
    > When I think of my teenage children, my answer is a resounding “no”! I think your suggestion is helpful– what do other people say? Throughout my life I’ve been told I am a very good listener, mainly because I had no voice to speak and rarely, if ever, spoke. One person got mad once and told me I had to at least say “hello” when walking by friends! But I consider myself in need of learning to really listen. I am finding that I need to “hear” the emotion in people’s words. Sometimes I ignore some words all-together and respond based on feelings. I have much to learn about listening. I now love to speak, in case you couldn’t tell by my 5 blogs :)

    “Why do we stop being good listeners?”
    > One reason I think is because we adults are told not to be emotional, and typically our churches have told us that emotions are bad. We’re told that anger is a sin, or that criticism is evil. I find such allegations unfounded in Scripture. Yes anger and criticism, and other emotions need to be checked from time to time.

    “Does anyone have the right to impose that requirement on another person?”
    > Another sobering point. I realize that just because I am comfortable airing my bleeding heart online, not everyone is. Many desire in person meetings. I wish I could oblige in-person meetings, but I’m so far away from nearly all of my old friends, and I’m hundreds of miles away from the people I really need to talk to.

    “Isn’t it interesting how, when you read the Psalms, so many of these prayers are full of anger, vitriol and other unpleasant and raw emotion?”
    > Yes! That is one reason I love reading “The Message” these days. I find that I cannot read the NIV without the words grating across my soul like a cheese grater. For several months last year I really hated reading the bible. But when I started reading The Message, I fell in love with Scripture once again. I found that my theology was like tinker-toys built upon specific phrases in the NIV. The Message shattered those weak constructs and the Spirit spoke God’s word like never before. Along with that, my emotions have started to grow back (after having been cut out of my by many life events). Someone recently blogged about an interesting observation: God is not a Christian. If we read the Scriptures and hear their tone and emotion, we find that God is very different from the type of person Christendom expects all of us to be. The Psalms are a great example. Galatians is another.

    “Can’t you just hear my inner child crying out to be heard?”
    > Yea. Well maybe. I’m trying to!

  3. Such a good article, Joe! Again! It seems that you expressed what I have been trying to do in our Bible study group. To prepare a Bible study I read a lot, so each time I had many things to say and to share. But so often I was amazed by what other people say. They said about things I would never think of that beautiful way before God. A desire to catch those voices of the Holy Spirit appeared in me, a desire to listen to Jesus through my precious brothers and sisters. I remember how the famous and very educated Augustine sometimes asked difficult philosophic questions to his uneducated mother and received answers from God, from the Holy Spirit through his Christian mother. (He didn’t think he was superior and above his mother in the church). Recently in a Baptist church there was time of prayer and an elder sister was praying among others. Wow, that was a prayer in which every word was so precious, so meaningful, so spirited and speaking to the very heart! After the service my wife and I agreed that the prayer was the main and the most “heart-moving” part. Even now I can’t imagine how a human is able to pray so beautifully! I am sure that the sister is a very close friend of Jesus (and of course, a very good listener of Jesus’ words). I think that “equality” is truly important for listening. And I personally agree to be even less equal for the sake of listening to some people. (And I suppose that this is a foundation for spiritual authority in the church. When brothers and sisters WANT to listen to someone, when they have a God-given desire in their hearts, this someone is worthy to be a pastor, a leader in the church. Not vice verso, when some self-acclaimed leader tells others to listen to him and obey his commands as God’s commands). And about listening to one’s wife and children you are so right, and it is surely a very weak side of my life. I used to ignore the family, not just because I was so many times told to do so, but also because it is my weakness. There are very good points about Job and Psalms in the article. They are very helpful for deeper understanding the message of the books. Thank you.

  4. The title reminds me a very frequent statement, “Disciples are not born, they are made!” ))

    • Joe Schafer

      Yes, the title was a play on words, a reference to the book Disciples are Made, Not Born.

      There’s another cultural reference that perhaps you didn’t get. “I triple-dog-dare you.” It comes from the movie A Christmas Story.

  5. Sharon Schafer

    Hi Joshua,

    I was recently reading some of my old journals. Though our marriage was basically happy, I struggled a lot because of the dynamics that Joe mentioned. For the most part, I saw it as my fault that our communication wasn’t ideal(a habit of mine), and cried out to God to help me. It took a while for us to understand what was really going on between us. A major turning point came after we attended a training seminar for Marriage Savers several years ago(haha…we thought we were ready to teach others!). In the training, we did a listening exercise in which we each had a turn to verbalize something we wished we could see/or change in our spouse. Our spouse then was required to simply verbalize what he/she heard without judgment or interpretation. We stumbled with this, it was so new. But a few weeks later, I remember the very moment when Joe put this into practice in our relationship. I remember feeling loved as I had never been loved before. This was a major turning point. We could learn a lot from groups that have made the practice of listening a cornerstone for real ministry.

    • Joe Schafer

      Sharon, I had forgotten that the turning point you mentioned, the moment when I actually started to validate your words, came after the Marriage Savers training.

      What they taught us was a very simple exercise called the Wish List. Sharon had to verbalize something that she wished would happen in our relationship. I was supposed to listen carefully and, instead of reacting or becoming defensive, ask her questions about what she meant until I really understood it. Then I had to repeat the wish back to her in my own words and ask, “Is that what you meant?” When she agreed, “Yes, that is what I meant,” the round was over, and then it was my turn to do the same for her. It’s just a basic communication technique called reflective listening.

      I recall that Wish List exercise being very uncomfortable for me. In fact, I couldn’t do really it. Sharon’s first wish was, “I wish that we — you and I and the kids — could spend more time together and do more things together as a family.” Instinctively, I reacted. I made some excuses for why I hadn’t been making time for our family to be together, and I tried to propose some quick-fix solutions. Then, when it was my turn to state a wish, mine was basically a retaliation. When the session was over, I felt very inadequate and embarassed. But it gave me an inclination that something was wrong, and as Sharon mentioned, it was shortly after that when things began to improve.

    • Thanks for your response, Sharon. It’s instructive to hear the journey that you and Joe went through. I think that one of the most precious memories I have from my childhood are the many times my mother drove me in the car and we would talk, and she especially would listen to whatever I had to say. I could express anything and feel that she would weigh what I had to say and allow herself or her ideas to be changed. I really thank God for such an experience; it has been really a huge help in learning how I should listen to my wife and, more and more, my children. Although I have a long ways to go still!