My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. (James 1:19 NIV)
Think back to the last time you were in a fight, argument or even a friendly debate with someone. I’m sure you came up with some really good comebacks, substantial reasons and coherent arguments. But it’s also quite likely that even after all that, they were still too dull to understand what you were working so hard to explain. Maybe you’re still at odds with that person, maybe you’ve made up.
Or think back to the last time a friend came to you with a heavy heart. As an objective third party, you could see at least one definite step that needed to happen for them to start working through their issue. You gave some solid advice, maybe even some biblical principles. But when your friend left you felt useless (or perhaps pretty impressed with yourself, I don’t know), and your friend never seemed to take your advice.
I want to suggest that while there may have been a way you could have spoken better, the major problem with your mouth was probably not what came out of it when you opened it, but that you opened it too much. I’m guilty of this all too often. My sister and I had countless arguments growing up. I usually knew I had a good reason for my words or actions (or at least I thought I did), so I spent most of the argument defending myself and showing why she was in the wrong. I listened carefully to what she said so that I could show her how on multiple points she was wrong. The problem is that I didn’t show her love by actually listening to what she was saying. I heard it all right, and I even cognitively processed it, but I didn’t listen to understand her grief. I lost the chance to deepen our relationship because I had to answer.
Sympathy is also not one of my strengths in life. When a friend would approach me with a problem, I could give them all sorts of great advice on things they could do about it (again, at least I thought I did). But few people ever took my advice. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come across more situations that I realize I actually have no idea how people should handle them. There might be an idealist answer somewhere in me, but it would be much easier said than done. Sometimes what people need are not answers, but someone who is willing to listen to them, let them think out loud and point them back to Christ.
The way you use your words in situations like these will depend on who you love more. If you love yourself more, you will need to have something to say. You won’t want to let them see you weak or uncertain. But if you listen well and use your words to help you understand them instead of the other way around, you’ll show them a rare kind of love. As you grow in your love for others, here are some tips on how to listen to understand instead of just listening to respond:
Let them speak as long as they need too.
When you’re listening to someone, don’t interrupt them. Keep track of things that are unclear of you. You can either write things down to ask later, or you can gently stop your friend and ask them to expound on what they mean. But try to let them speak as long as they want. Show them attention, whether that’s by making eye contact, occasional nods or words of understanding, or resting your hand on them (if appropriate).
Ask questions to help you understand.
If something is unclear to you after they have finished their story, ask them about it further. If you want to know the reason or motivation for something that happened, inquire about it calmly. You’re not trying to establish blame here. You’re trying to learn what is going on in the other person’s mind and heart so that you can come to an agreement, plan of action, or even just an understanding so they know they’re not being ignored.
Repeat a summarized version of their point back to them.
After listening and asking questions, repeat the main idea they were talking about back to them, “So you’re saying…” This helps you confirm that you are understanding clearly. Anything you say that they didn’t mean, they now have the opportunity to correct.
Affirm your love for them and God’s love for them.
Whether you’re in an argument (of whatever severity) or coming alongside a friend, this will be really beneficial to your friend and your friendship. It won’t look the same in both cases. When you’re disagreeing, it’s important to reaffirm that the disagreement is not going to make you stop loving them. Nothing can undo what Christ has done to reconcile both of you to Himself and thus also to each other. They are still your brother or sister in Christ. If they are not a Christian, you will still love them even if you disagree, because Jesus still loves them even though they are living in rebellion against Him. You probably shouldn’t use those exact words with an unbeliever, but say something along those lines from your heart.
If you’re comforting someone, you’re letting them know that this is not a burden they have to carry alone. You are there with them as someone willing to just listen. You don’t have to have an opinion if they just need you to pay attention. They’re probably already hearing everyone else’s opinion on the matter. If they ask you or it is appropriate to share your thoughts, go ahead. Just don’t bombard them with more suggestions unnecessarily. If you’re comforting someone, here’s another thing you can do to listen well:
Ask them where they see God in the midst of their circumstances.
It may or may not be appropriate to speculate about how God is using their circumstances, but it will definitely be good to hear how they are seeing God through it all. If they are struggling to trust Him, you get to point them back to God’s love for them, His goodness, His power. All of this was demonstrated in fullness at the cross.
After all of this, it may be appropriate for you to share your side if it’s an argument. Together, with each other’s best interest in mind, you can reach a conclusion. If you’re helping a broken friend, it may or may not be necessary to help them think of an action plan. In both cases, following these tips will help you show them love by listening well.