Four(teen) Ways to Improve Your Listening

“Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener and whose work they should share.” —Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen [and] slow to speak…” —James 1:19, NIV

Nothing unburdens a hurting soul, delights a cheerful soul, or gives clarity to a muddled soul like a friend who listens with interest. As David Augsburger observed, “Being heard is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference.” (I would also suggest that being heard is so close to being known that most people cannot tell the difference.)

We all long to be known and loved, and listening is custom-fit to accomplish both of these ends. When done correctly, listening can bring healing, refreshment, encouragement, transformation. In fact, I would argue that there is not a single conversational habit you could adopt that will have a greater impact on the people in your life than listening well. (The practice of giving specific encouragement is also near the top of the list.)

The problem is that many parents, counselors, teachers, and friends believe the best way to have an impact is to talk—to offer advice, share knowledge, or impress with words of wisdom. Most of the time, that’s not the case. As the adage goes, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” You earn the right to speak into one’s life through listening well. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “We should listen with the ears of God so that we may speak the word of God.”

Do you want to have an impact on those around you? Learn to listen well. Listening is a gift you can always give and a skill you can always improve. To that end, consider four(teen) ways to improve your listening.

1. Choose to listen.

I’d argue that 70% of the reason why people don’t listen well is that they don’t choose to, whereas 30% is because they don’t know how. In other words, the first step to listening well is a matter of intentionality. It’s a matter of conscious choice.

In every conversation, you have two options (with a wide spectrum in between): tune out or listen well. Often this is simply the choice between putting yourself first and putting the other person first. As Stephen Covey put it, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Most people are more interested in what they have to say than what you have to say.

The reason being heard feels so much like being loved is because true listening is loving. It is caring rather than consuming, understanding rather than using, giving rather than taking. Not many habits reflect the gospel more powerfully than this.

2. Don’t assume you already know what the other person has to say.

Perhaps nothing kills active listening more than the assumption that “I already know this.” Worse, when we assume the other person has nothing interesting, new, or novel to offer, it can subtly fuel spiteful feelings toward him. To quote Bonhoeffer again, “There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person” (emphasis mine).

At best, the assumption that the other person has nothing new or interesting to offer is unhelpful. At worst, it will deteriorate a relationship. Meanwhile, if you approach interactions with the expectation that you will learn something new, you will not only listen better, discover more, and participate with greater enjoyment, but you will also honor the other person and reflect the love of Christ (our ultimate motivation to listen well). As my friend Caleb Collins put it, “Treat others like they have something valuable to say and you will likely both give and get something valuable in return.”

3. Become an expert at asking questions.

Asking questions and listening are a match made in heaven (literally). Jesus asked over 300 questions in the gospels alone—even though he “already knew what others had to say” infinitely more than we do! (See Psalm 139:4; John 2:24-25.) If question-asking and listening were merely about information gathering, Jesus wouldn’t have done it. Yet he majored in it. Why? Because question-asking is a uniquely powerful form of ministry.

Asking questions communicates that you value the other person (and what she has to say) in a way that talking simply cannot—regardless of how profound your words are. This is a priceless gift in a world full of people starving to be noticed and valued. If you ask good questions, people will encounter the attentive, loving, interested presence of Christ through you in a rare and transformative way.

If you struggle to know what questions to ask, remember that you always have FORKS in your toolbelt. (See this article for an explanation of this acronym and further tips on asking great questions.)

To counselors and friends of hurting loved ones

Asking questions is especially important when helping a hurting loved one. Asking questions shows the other person that you see her as a person to foster not a problem to fix. (It also helps you give much better counsel if and when you do speak.) Always aim to ask at least 3 questions before offering your input.

If you’re a counselor, I’d recommend something like a 10-to-1 ratio between asking questions and giving advice. Effective counseling is much more about understanding the other person (and helping him understand himself) than giving advice. People are more likely to change when you help them come to a conclusion than when you tell them what they should think. Advice (often) band-aids a wound; listening and asking questions work toward healing the wound.

4. Show interest.

If you want to make someone feel heard, listen. If you want to make someone feel loved, listen with interest. Consider ten ways to grow in this area:

  1. Look her in the eye. Maintaining eye contact communicates to the other person, “You are the most important thing to me right now.” Wandering eyes will always make the other person feel unheard (or not fully heard at best).
  1. Face her. As someone is talking, ask yourself, “Does my body language communicate that I am all-in on this conversation or that I’m more interested in something else?”
  1. Put down your phone. Not many things communicate disinterest (and disrespect) more than looking at your phone when someone is talking to you. Meanwhile, putting your phone away assures the other person that she has your undivided attention.
  1. Ask clarifying questions. Clarifying questions communicate your desire to understand and your interest in the conversation. Two of the best questions to ask are, “What did you mean by [insert one specific word or phrase they said]?” and “Are you saying that [insert what you think they’re saying in your own words]?” 
  1. Smile. Smiling shows that you enjoy the other person’s presence. You don’t need to smile for the entire interaction. But if you spend two hours with someone and you never smile, what does this communicate to the other person about your interest in them?
  1. Nod when she’s talking. Facial expressions and non-verbal affirmations show her that you understand and you’re actively listening.
  1. Write down important details. It can be easy to forget important parts of a dialogue (e.g., the names of her kids, the anniversary of her mom’s death, her prayer requests). Immediately after a conversation ends, make note of these things. Remembering sensitive details will go a long way in making someone feel heard and loved.
  1. Set aside time for undistracted listening. It is understandably difficult to listen well as you’re rushing out the door, about to take an important phone call, or falling asleep after a long day. Make listening easier by setting aside time when you can be engaged without distraction. If you’re unable to give someone your full attention, ask her, “Can we talk about this [insert a specific day and time]?” This communicates that you care about this person’s thoughts enough to make sure you can give them your full attention.
  1. Pray. Before you meet with someone (or before you get home from work to see your spouse), pray, “Help me to listen well.” This glorifies God, honors the other person, and puts your mind in the right place. And you better believe God is delighted to answer this prayer!
  1. Follow up. Every time you follow up with someone about something she said, you communicate that “I heard you, I care about you, and I want to hear more about you.” Often the sweet spot to follow up is within 24-72 hours.

Love by listening

You will have an opportunity to love someone today by listening well. Take advantage of this opportunity and lean into it as a gift from God. Not many things will convey the affection of Christ more powerfully than your intentional and interested attention.

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Blake Glosson is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been published by The Gospel Coalition and Crosswalk.com and republished and/or referred by Eternal Perspective Ministries (Randy Alcorn)Challies.com (Tim Challies), Moody Radio (Dawn and Steve Mornings—here and here), The JOY FM (The Morning Cruise with Dave, Bill, and Carmen)ChurchLeaders.comThe Aquila ReportMonergism.com, and numerous other sources. Previously, he served as the director of young adults at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.

Read “Five Habits That Kill Contentment” here.

Read “Four Burdens Jesus Never Asked You to Carry” here.

Read “Three Ways to Glorify God in Worry and Anxiety” here.

Read “An Answer to Prayer Even Better Than Clarity” here.

Three Ways to Glorify God in Worry and Anxiety

Note: This article is adapted from a lesson I taught at The Rock young adult ministry at New Covenant Bible Church in February of 2021. You can listen to the lesson here.

Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor. All content and information on this website is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute or replace medical advice. Always consult a professional in the area of your particular needs and circumstances prior to making any decisions about your mental health.

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Anxiety comes in all shapes and sizes. Some of our concerns are attached to legitimate threats; others are demons of our imagination. I appreciate Winston Churchill’s words: “When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.”

Fortunately, God cares about all of our anxieties (1 Peter 5:7)—regardless of the source—and he beckons us to come to him in our time of need (Hebrews 4:16). Beyond this, God also intends to use us despite our worries (2 Corinthians 1:3-5). You don’t need to be strong or have it all together in order to be used by God or to glorify him. In fact, God specializes in working in and through weak people. In the words of John Piper, “God loves to be at a disadvantage just before he wins.”

Far from benching you in your weakness, God intends to beautify you, reveal himself to you, bear fruit through you, and showcase his power through your weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). So, how can we glorify God in our worry and anxiety? Consider three steps as a starting point.

#1: Pray your feelings.

Key verse: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise” (James 5:13).

Perhaps the most comforting aspect of James 5:13 is what it does not say. Notice that it does not say, “Is anyone among you suffering? Celebrate anyway! Is anyone among you worrying? Just pretend like you’re happy!” Instead, this verse acknowledges that worshiping God will look different on different days of our lives, as we go through different emotions.

God knows and honors the fact that we’re emotional creatures (Psalm 103:13-14), meaning he doesn’t demand (or expect) that our worship always look gleeful. This is great news. Can you imagine if God only accepted our worship when we were happy? God not only allows us to be real with our emotions—he encourages us to! So, when we feel cheerful, God says, “Sing! Enjoy your happiness! Worship me in your happiness.” When we’re suffering or sad, God says, “Come to me! Pray! Let me help carry your burdens. Worship me in your sadness.”

God is not afraid or ashamed of your emotions. He does not say, “First get rid of your worry, then come to me.” He says, “Come to me with your worry” (Matthew 11:28-30). God doesn’t ask you to be polished, only to be honest. He wants to meet you where you are and to help you walk through it (Psalm 23:4). So, in the words of the psalmist, “Pour out your heart before him! God is a refuge for us!” (Psalm 62:8).

#2: Inform your thoughts.

Key verse: “Take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

A few years ago, I heard a talk on the subject of sin. The speaker didn’t hold any punches. He said, “If you’re struggling with sin, just stop it! If you’re struggling with lust and pornography, just stop it! If you’re struggling with fear and anxiety, just stop it!” Then, at the end of his talk, he literally had everyone say it together: “When we are struggling with sin, what do we do? Just stop it!”

I cringed when I heard this—not because there is no truth in this approach, but because the Bible is not that simplistic! When we are worried and anxious, God does not say, “My child, Just stop it.” But he does say, “Take your thoughts captive.”

What exactly does it mean to take our thoughts captive? Consider the opposite of this statement—to be taken captive by our thoughts. This is when we allow our thoughts (and feelings) to control us or to be the ultimate authority on who God is, who we are, or the way the world is. Whenever we do this, we are extremely vulnerable to being deceived by the lies of worry.

It has been said that there are two primary lies at the root of worry: (1) God is not in control; (2) God is not good. Whenever we are taken captive by our thoughts, these lies are free to fester and grow. How can we uproot these toxic, deceitful narratives? We must inform our thoughts and feelings with God’s promises.

God’s Daily Mercies

There are many wonderful promises to cling to in our worry and anxiety (I provide 15 here), but one of the most important promises to dwell on is the promise of God’s daily mercies. Much of our worrying in life comes when we try to seize control of something today (or figure something out today) that will happen in the future. Yet time and time again throughout Scripture, God welcomes us to simply focus on what he’s put before us today and rest assured that he will take care of us tomorrow (cf. Exodus 16; Lamentations 3:23; Matthew 6:11; 6:34).

Corrie ten Boom gives a powerful illustration of this concept in her book The Hiding Place. When Corrie was six years old, she struggled with the idea that her dad could die at some point in her life. So one day, when he came home from work, she burst into tears and pleaded with him to assure her that he wouldn’t die. Here is the excerpt (lightly edited):

“I need you,” Corrie sobbed. “You can’t die. You can’t.”

Her father sat down beside her and said gently, “Corrie, when you and I go to Amsterdam, when do I give you your train ticket?”

“Well,” she said, “just before we get on the train.” 

“Exactly,” he said. “And our wise Father in heaven knows when we are going to need things, too. Don’t run out ahead of him, Corrie. When the time comes that you need strength, you will look into your heart and find what you need just in time.”

God does not promise to give us today what we need for tomorrow—but he does promise to give us today what we need for today, and to give us tomorrow what we need for tomorrow. And when we rest in this promise—when we depend on God today and trust him to provide tomorrow—we combat the lies of worry and we glorify him.

#3: Remember your Savior.

Key verses:

Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

In all of our worries, we must remember (at least) two things. First, we have a Savior who cares deeply about all of our concerns (big or small), because he cares deeply about us (1 Peter 5:7). Second, as sinners, our most foundational need is actually not to get rid of our present worry, but to be made right with God—to have our sins paid for, our hearts changed, peace with God restored, and eternal life secured through Christ.

When anxiety hits, we don’t only need someone who can sympathize with us—we need someone who can actually save us! And the good news is that in the person of Christ, we have both. Jesus is not only a perfect sympathizer, he is also a glorious Savior who is coming back to make things right. As Jesus himself promised: “You have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22; cf. Isaiah 25:8; Revelation 21:4).

Let’s rest today knowing that we have a Savior who both cares and saves, that he’s not finished yet, and that the best is still yet to come.

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Blake Glosson is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been published by The Gospel Coalition and Crosswalk.com and republished and/or referred by Eternal Perspective Ministries (Randy Alcorn), Challies.com (Tim Challies), Moody Radio (Dawn and Steve Mornings—here and here), The JOY FM (The Morning Cruise with Dave, Bill, and Carmen), ChurchLeaders.com, The Aquila Report, Monergism.com, and numerous other sources. Previously, he served as the director of young adults at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.

Download “15 Precious Promises of God to Cling to Daily” here.

Read “An Answer to Prayer Even Better Than Clarity” here.

Read “Christian, You Are Fully Known and Fully Loved” here.

Questions or comments? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a reply in the box below.

How to Give (and Receive) Repentance

Note: This article is also published on The Gospel Coalition.

Imagine you are on Family Feud, and Steve Harvey gives the following prompt:

“We asked 100 sinners, ‘Name one reason why you do not repent of your sin to one another.’ The top seven answers are on the board.” 

What do you think the most common responses would be? I’d offer these seven. 

We don’t repent because. . .  

  1. We’re completely blind to our sin, or we don’t think our sin is bad enough to warrant repentance.
  1. We don’t think the other person deserves our repentance. Maybe we think they sinned first, or they sinned more, or their sin caused our sin, so we refuse to repent until they do.
  1. We don’t think repenting will help anything. Sometimes we fear our repentance will fuel their pride, appear to ignore their fault, or lead to further conflict. So we stay silent.
  1. We are too proud. Repentance means admitting we were wrong—and that we need mercy—which requires Christlike humility. Sometimes we don’t want to stoop that low.
  1. We are too ashamed of our sin or too afraid of the consequences. Repentance also means giving up (the feeling of) control over our own reputation, and putting ourselves at the mercy of others. This takes vulnerability—something many people run from.
  1. We don’t want to change. Biblical repentance requires turning—changing our behavior—which can feel a bit like heart surgery. Many resist confessing their sin because they love it too much to give it up.
  1. We don’t know how to repent. Many people never had repentance clearly modeled in the home or taught in the church, leaving them unequipped to put it into action.

So why should we confess our sins to one another?

James 5:16 gives us a helpful starting point: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

This verse gives us at least two motivations to confess our sins to one another:

  1. Because God commands us to.
  2. Because God commands us to for our healing.

Repentance is not a punishment God makes us pay after we sin; it’s medicine God uses to heal us from our sin’s ravaging effects. God uses our repentance to enliven us (Acts 11:18), refresh us (Acts 3:19–20), restore us (Luke 15:11–24), cleanse us (1 John 1:9), and enrich our fellowship with him and with one another (1 John 1:6–7). Repentance is not a curse to fear, but a gift to cherish.

How do I repent of my sin to someone?

Repentance can be hard, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. Below is a simple “1-2-3 model” of repentance: one statement, two omissions, three questions.

One statement:

“I am sorry that I [insert sin].”

We can call this naming the sin. James 5:16 says, “confess your sins to one another” Both the words “your” and “sins” are key here.

First, confess your sins. Repentance is not saying:

  • I’m sorry you were hurt.
  • I’m sorry you were offended.
  • I’m sorry you interpreted that the way you did.

Rather, repentance is saying,

  • I’m sorry I spoke harshly with you.
  • I’m sorry I was dishonest with you.
  • I’m sorry I was selfish in demanding my way.

Second, confess your sins. This means taking the offense out of the abstract (“I’m sorry I hurt you”) and getting specific about how you sinned against the other person. Specificity honors the other person, legitimizes her pain, helps both parties come to an agreement, and gives you something specific to work on in the future.

Two omissions:

  1. Finger-pointing: “I am sorry I [insert the sin], but you. . .”
  1. Self justification: “I am sorry I [insert the sin], but I wouldn’t have had to if. . .”

Finger-pointing and self-justification are two of the biggest roadblocks to healing and reconciliation. I once heard a pastor say, “In conflict, always own 100 percent of your 2 percent.” In other words, even if you were only two percent of the problem, own it. Not only does this honor God (our ultimate motivation), but often when we take full ownership of our sin, the other person will reciprocate and confess her sin, too.

Three questions:

  1. “Will you forgive me?”

Trying to forgive someone who hasn’t asked for your forgiveness is like trying to climb a mountain with a bag of rocks strapped to your back. It’s possible, but much harder, more painful, more tiring, and less enjoyable. Asking for forgiveness doesn’t remove the mountain the other person must climb to forgive you, but it can immediately remove a significant amount of weight off her back, which can be immensely freeing. This might be the one question your loved one has been longing to hear from you for days, months, or years.

  1. “Was there any other way that I hurt you in this situation?”

One of the most important aspects of confession is coming to an agreement about the sin committed, the pain caused, and the plan of action going forward. (The Greek word for confess in James 5:16 literally means “to agree.”) Without coming to an agreement, bitterness and distance will continue to thrive.

  1. “How can I love you better in the future?”

Beneath this question is the humble acknowledgement that, “Maybe I don’t know what you need. You tell me how I can love you better.” This question conveys love, facilitates needful communication, and provides a healthy foundation for healing and reconciliation. 

How do I receive repentance?

Because repentance is so rare, it can be difficult to know how to respond when someone actually does confess their sin to us. Consider three simple tips. (In cases of abuse, seek help from others to determine the best way forward.)

  1. Thank them for repenting and grant them forgiveness.
  1. Confess any way that you sinned in this matter. (It is possible that you have not sinned, in which case you shouldn’t make something up.)
  1. Communicate exactly how you were hurt and how you would feel loved in the future, so that they can work on changing.

We have a responsibility to communicate our needs to those closest to us. It’s not loving to sweep their sins under the rug or to tolerate their annoying habits without saying anything. This will only enable their behavior and feed bitterness in our hearts.

Cherish Repentance

Repentance is a gift of God that leads to life and healing (Acts 11:18; James 5:16). Let’s cherish it, cultivate it, and live in gratitude and dependence on God as we seek to model it in our lives.

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Blake Glosson is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been published by The Gospel Coalition and Crosswalk.com and republished and/or referred by Eternal Perspective Ministries (Randy Alcorn), Challies.com (Tim Challies), Moody Radio (Dawn and Steve Mornings—here and here), The JOY FM (The Morning Cruise with Dave, Bill, and Carmen), ChurchLeaders.com, The Aquila Report, Monergism.com, and numerous other sources. Previously, he served as the director of young adults at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.

Read “An Answer to Prayer Even Better than Clarity” here.

Read “How to Starve Bitterness” here.

Read “Which Memories Should I Dwell On?” here.