Effective Listening

By William V. Beasley 

“Take heed therefore how ye hear. . .” (Luke 8:18). Not only is man responsible before God for what he hears (Mark 4:24), but also for the manner in which he hears. Some people have prejudiced ears that filter out all that they do not wish to hear. At least fifteen times (seven in the Gospels, and eight in Revelation) Jesus used the expression, or a similar one, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. . :”

It has been well said, “It requires great listening as well as great preaching to make a great sermon.” Generally speaking, preachers are better at preaching than the congregation is at hearing. Why? Because preachers have been trained, studied how to preach. We would all be wise to study, train ourselves how to listen (hear).

“Ten Guides To Effective Listening” are given by Ralph G. Nichols in his work “Do We Know How to Listen? Practical Helps in a Modern Age” (The Speech Teacher, X (1961), 118-124). We are grateful’ to Dr. Nichols and to the Speech Communication Association for their permission to quote from this work.

Ten Guides To Effective Listening

1. “Find areas of interest

“All studies point to the advantage in being interested in the topic under discussion. Bad listeners usually declare the subject dry after the first few sentences. Once this decision is made, it serves to rationalize any and all inattention. . . .

“The key to the whole matter of interest in a topic is the word use. Whenever we wish to listen efficiently, we ought to say to ourselves: ‘What’s he saying that I can use? What worthwhile ideas has he? Is he reporting any workable procedures? Anything that I can cash in, or with which I can make myself happier?’ Such questions lead us to screen what we are hearing in a continual effort to sort out the elements of personal value. G. K. Chesterton spoke wisely indeed when he said, ‘There is no such thing as an uninteresting subject; there are only uninterested people.’

There should be no major problem here. All Christians should be interested in, and able to use the truths presented from God’s word. If a lesson is not interesting to us, perhaps we need to consider a revision in our area of interest.

2. “Judge content, not delivery

“Many listeners alibi inattention to a speaker by thinking to themselves: ‘Who could listen to such a character? What an awful voice! Will he ever stop reading from his notes?’

“The good listener reacts differently. He may well look at the speaker and think; ‘This man is inept. Seems: like almost anyone ought to be able to talk better than that.’ But from this initial similarity he moves on to a different conclusion, thinking ‘But wait a minute … I’m not interested in his personality or delivery. I want to. find out what he knows. Does this man know some things that I need to know?’

“Essentially we ‘listen with our own experience.’ Is the conveyor to be held responsible because we are poorly equipped to decode his message? We cannot understand everything we hear, but one sure way to raise the level of our understanding is to assume the responsibility which is inherently ours.”

The last paragraph reminds us of the one who upon saying, “I didn’t get anything out of that sermon,” was told, “Well, perhaps that is because you didn’t bring anything to put it in.”

It is a shame but congregations have been known to seek a new preacher because the old one was “not eloquent in the pulpit.”

3. “Hold your fire . . .

“The aroused person usually becomes preoccupied by trying to do three things simultaneously: calculate what hurt is being done to his own pet ideas; plot an embarrassing question to ask the speaker; enjoy mentally all the discomfiture visualized for the speaker once the devastating reply to him is launched. With these things going on, subsequent passages go unheard.

“We must learn not to get too excited about a speaker’s point until we are certain we thoroughly. understand it. The secret is contained in the principle, that we must always withhold evaluation until comprehension is complete.”

How many times have so “fired from the hip” when we should have “buttoned our lip.” “But let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak. . .” (James 1:19).

“Good listeners focus on central ideas; they tend to recognize the characteristic language in which central ideas are usually stated, and they are able to discriminate between fact and principle, idea and’ example, evidence and argument. Poor listeners are inclined to listen for the facts in every presentation.

“It is a significant fact that only about 25 per cent of persons listening to a formal talk are able to grasp the speaker’s central idea. To develop this skill requires an ability to recognize conventional organizational patterns,. transitional language, and the speaker’s use of recapitulation. Fortunately, all of these items can be readily mastered with, a bit of effort.”

Preacher, you can test this by asking your midweek class what the sermons were about the Sunday before. Be prepared for an ego shattering experience. Will even 25% know the central idea?

5. “Be flexible

“Our research has shown that our 100 worst listeners thought that note-taking and outlining were synonyms. They believed there was but one way to take notes – by making an outline.

“The 100 best listeners had apparently learned early in life that if they wanted to be efficient note-takers they had to have more than one system of taking notes. They equipped themselves with four or five systems, and learned to adjust their system to the organizational pattern, or the absence of one, in each talk they heard. If we want to be good listeners, we must be flexible and adaptable note takers.”

6. “Work at listening

“One of the most striking characteristics of poor listeners is their disinclination to spend any energy in a listening situation. College students, by their own testimony, frequently enter classes all worn out physically; assume postures which only seem to give attention to the speaker; and then proceed to catch up on needed rest or to reflect upon purely personal matters. This faking of attention is one of the worst habits afflicting us as a people.

“Listening is hard work. It is characterized by faster heart action, quicker circulation of the blood, a small rise in bodily temperature. The over relaxed listener is merely appearing to tune in, and then feeling conscience-free to pursue any of a thousand mental tangents.

7. “Resist distractions

“The good listeners tend to adjust quickly to any. kind of abnormal situation; poor listeners tend to tolerate bad conditions and, in some instances, even to create distractions themselves….

“‘A good listener instinctively fights distraction. Sometimes the fight is easily won – by closing a door, shutting off the radio, moving closer to the person talking (emphasis mind, wvb), or asking him to speak louder. If the distractions cannot be met that easily, then it becomes a matter of concentration.”

Babies in services will squirm, fuss and fret, and ill mannered teenagers will write notes and giggle, but we should be able to concentrate on something as important as God’s word. If we cannot perhaps the real babies are not the ones fussing and fretting, and ill manners may not be confined to teenagers.

8. “Exercise your mind

“Poor listeners are inexperienced in hearing difficult, expository material. Good listeners apparently develop an appetite for hearing a variety of presentations difficult enough to challenge their mental capacities . . .”

Even if a sermon is not on your pet interest it is still needed if it is Truth. Once you learn something about the subject you might even learn to enjoy the “meat” of the word.

“For selfish reasons alone one of the best investments we can make is to give each speaker our conscious attention. We ought to establish eye contact and maintain it; to indicate by posture and facial expression that the occasion and the speaker’s efforts are a matter of real concern to us. When we do these things we help the speaker to express himself more clearly, and we in turn profit by better understanding of the improved communication we have helped him to achieve. None of this necessarily implies acceptance of his point of view or favorable action upon his appeals. It is, rather, an expression of interest.”

What is said of college students is all too true of church members. Get plenty of rest Saturday night so you will be rested and ready to work at listening.

9. “Keep your mind open

“Parallel to the blind spots which afflict human beings are certain psychological deaf spots which impair our ability to perceive and understand. These deaf, spots are the dwelling place of our most cherished notions, convictions, and complexes. Often, when a speaker invades one of these areas with a word of phrase, we turn our mind to re-traveling familiar mental pathways crisscrossing our invaded area of sensitivity.

“It is hard to believe in moments of cold detachment that just a word or phrase can cause such emotional eruption. Yet with poor listeners it is frequently the case; and even with very good listeners it is occasionally the case, when such emotional deafness transpires, communicative efficiency drops rapidly to zero.

“Among the word known thus to serve as red flags to some listeners are: mother-in-law, landlord, red neck, sharecropper, sissy, pervert, automation, clerk, income tax, hack…

Effective listeners try to identify and to rationalize the words or phrases, most upsetting emotionally. Often the emotional impact of such words can be decreased through a free and open discussion of them with friends or associates.”

Could this explain why some of our denominational friends say, “All you ever preach on is baptism; baptism, baptism?”

What are some of your “red flag” words? Do we mentally turn off those who mention giving; studying, attendance, drinking, etc.?

10. “Capitalize on thought speed

“Most persons talk at a speed of about 125 words a minute. There is good evidence that if thought were measured in words per minute, most of us could think easily at about four times that rate. It is difficult – almost painful – to try to slow down our thinking speed. Thus we normally have about 400 words of thinking time to spare during every minute a person talks to us.

“What do we do with our excess thinking time whiles someone is speaking? If we are poor listeners, we soon become impatient with the slow progress the speaker seems to be making. So our thoughts turn to something else for a moment, then dart back to the speaker. These brief side excursions of thought continue until our mind tarries too long on some enticing but irrelevant subject. Then, when our thoughts return to the person talking, we find he’s far ahead of us. Now it’s harder to follow him and increasingly easy to take off on side excursions. Finally we give up; the person is still talking, but our mind is in another world.

“The good listener used his thought speed to advantage; he constantly applies his spare thinking time to what is being said. It is not difficult once one has a definite pattern of thought to follow. To develop such a pattern we should:

“l. Try to anticipate what a person is going to talk about. On the basis of what he’s already said, ask yourself, “What’s he trying to get at? What point is he going to make?”

“2. Mentally summarize what the person has been saying. What point has he made already, if any?

“3. Weigh the speaker’s evidence by mentally questioning it. As he presents facts, illustrative stories and statistics, continually ask yourself: ‘Are they accurate? Do they come from an unprejudiced source? Am I getting the full picture, or is he telling me only what will prove his point?”

“4. Listen between the lines. The speaker doesn’t always put everything that’s important into words. The changing tones and volume of his voice may have a meaning. So may his facial expressions, the gestures he makes with his hands, the movements of his body.

“Not capitalizing on thought speed is our greatest single handicap. The differential between thought speed and speech speed breeds false feelings of security and mental tangents. Yet, through listening training, this same differential can be readily converted into our greatest single asset.”

“Take heed how you hear. . .” (Luke 8:18). “He that hath an ear to hear let him hear” (Matt. 11:15; etc.).

Truth Magazine XX:8, p. 7-9
February 19, 1976