I quickened my step as I followed the nurse down the hallway. It was nearing the end of my shift working as the hospital’s IV therapist, and I was trying to give the nurse important instructions regarding her patient’s intravenous status. “Please be very careful when you’re pushing medications through this new line. The patient’s skin is very fragile, and I’m afraid there aren’t many good veins left for another site if this one fails.” The nurse continued walking away from me, giving no indication she heard or understood my instructions. Finally, in exasperation, I asked, “Do you speak English?” She stopped at the doorway of a patient’s room and gave me a short reply over her shoulder, “Of course I do!”
Hellen Keller, deaf and blind from birth, was once asked, “If you could have either hearing or sight, which would you prefer? She astonished the inquirer with her answer—“Hearing.”
Listening is the most underrated of all the sensory experiences. One of the reasons for this is the failure of most people to appreciate the many facets of listening. It is a multidimensional skill through which we gain information from the world around us, are able to help and reach out to others in a multitude of ways, and in the most elevated of uses, discover God.
A LISTENING HEART
What is meant by a “listening heart?” Some have said it is the ability to listen with the third ear, or the ability to perceive what is said, thought, and felt, as well as what the voice is saying. This is called holistic listening. When we involve all of our senses in the process of listening, we have achieved the ultimate in caring—listening with the heart. So, how do we do that?
THE SEVEN LISTENING LEVELS
The eyes are the most expressive of our facial features. Their movements narrowing, widening, and their brightness or lack of brightness all reveal the moods of their owner. We must learn to use our eyes—really use them—if we are to hear with our hearts. Looking around the room, cataloging the books on the shelves, or staring into space is not the way to give a person our best gift—our attention. Looking at that person carefully, giving the subject our gentle, interested, concerned gaze, assures him or her that we intend not to pry but to help.
During a trip home from a dance, an interested medical man noticed that his teenage daughter wasn’t hearing what he was saying. His curiosity aroused, the doctor paid a visit to the next dance and set up some monitoring equipment which revealed that the band’s sound level peaked at 120 decibels. At the conclusion of the dance, further tests indicated that, despite their youthful resilience, the kids showed an average hearing loss of 11 decibels, and one boy showed a 35-decibel loss.
So when trying to converse with a young person with little apparent success, it would be appropriate to consider a potential hearing problem. In talking with elderly folks, consideration should be given to their hearing ability. Most people are embarrassed and would rather fake understanding the conversation than admit to hearing difficulties.
Besides physical hearing barriers, one also has to ask:
a. Do I understand the basic idea the person is trying to communicate to me?
b. Is vocabulary a problem?
c. Is there an accent I’m having trouble under- standing?
d. Is the noise in the room interfering with my ability to really hear this person?
e. Am I so preoccupied with other matters that I’m having trouble focusing on what is being said to me?
Ear-listening would seem to be the most obvious of all types of listening. But we can see that there are obstacles which can interfere with clear listening.
Studies show that the angle at which a person’s head is held is another indicator of how much attention is being paid. Here are some examples:
Listening critically: head in the hand, with a forefinger resting against the side of the face.
Relaxed readiness: sitting back in the chair with hands behind the head.
Reflective listening: lifting the head and stroking the chin or beard.
The worst type is head-in-hand-listening, accented with eyelids half descended. This position gives the impression that if the listener’s hand were not supporting his head, it would certainly roll forward. The message is: “Poor me! I’ve got to put up with this, but please hurry up and get it over with.”
Dr. Ralph D. Nichols of the University of Minnesota once addressed a high-school commencement in which, from his point of view, everything went wrong. One child began to cry, and then another swelled the chorus. A small boy galloped up and down the aisle, chased by another. Nichols realized he had lost his audience.
Nichols tried every trick in the book. He spoke loudly, told a funny story, walked around the stage, peered intently and disapprovingly at the areas of disturbance. But all was to no avail.
Then he tried his last desperate trick. He found one good listener—an elderly gentleman in the first row who was looking up, smiling and nodding his head approvingly. Concentrating all his attention on this one listener, the speaker gradually salvaged the situation and the speech.
During the refreshment period that followed, Nichols asked the school superintendent to introduce him to the old gentleman who had sat on the front row. “Well, I’ll try to introduce you,” said the superintendent, “but it may be a little difficult. You see, the poor old fellow is stone-deaf.” Unable to listen with his ears, the deaf man had saved the day by listening with his head.
We use our hands a lot when talking. We use our hands to wave a friend, clap our approval, and shake the hands of others. But hands can also reflect our level of interest in what is being said to us. A person can convey an unspoken message by the way he or she straightens a tie or scarf, toys with glasses, adjusts a belt, waves to another friend, or bites a fingernail.
Touching may be the most misunderstood method of paying attention. In our society we associate touching with sexual overtures. There are many people in our society who need touching—children and the elderly in particular.
People need physical contact—a touch on the shoulder, a pat on the arm, a hug—which can convey messages that cannot be expressed in words. Jesus was a person who touched people.
6. Third-Ear Listening
Listening with the third ear refers to listening for the unspoken message contained in the emotional tones of the speaker’s voice. Quite often the words which are spoken do not match the tone. We can pick up clues by noting the pitch or tone of the voice, the quality and clarity of the voice, and the emphasis placed on a particular word or group of words. This process has also been called “listening beyond the words.”
The techniques of body listening make up the acrostic SOFTEN—
S – Smile: Carrying on communication with a sullen-faced individual is altogether different from talking with a person with a winning smile. A smile is probably the most important factor in establishing rapport between two people.
O – Open Posture: The gesture for defensiveness, defiance, and withdrawal is an arms-crossed posture. The person who is listening with his body will avoid crossed arms and maintain an open posture.
F – Forward Lean: The body listener who leans toward the speaker gives the impression of movement toward him or her and signifies intense interest in what is being said.
T – Touch: We’ve discussed touch previously.
E – Eye Contact: Turning the head to look directly at a speaker is the primary indication of attention.
N – Nod: We talked about this type of listening.
THE TOTAL LISTENER IN ACTION
Total listening might be described as the activity in which the listener goes to work to utilize every part of his body—mouth, eyes, head, etc.—to make the other person feel loved, valued, and worthwhile.
Frank Capra, the celebrated movie producer, spent some time with Franklin D. Roosevelt, then President of the United States. Capra described the way in which FDR entered into a conversation with him:
“...with a big friendly smile, and the glint of intense interest in his sparkling eyes, he would encourage you to talk about yourself, your family, your work, anything. ‘Well, I declare!’ he’d exclaim after you’d made some inane statement. By little laughs, and goads, and urgings such as ‘Really? Tell me more!’ . . . ‘Well, what do you know!’ . . . ‘Same thing’s happened to me dozens of times!’ . . . ‘Oh, that’s fascinating!’ . . . his warmth would change you from a stuttering milquetoast to an articulate raconteur” (The Awesome Power of the Listening Heart, John W. Drakeford, Zondervan Publishing House, 1982, p. 105).
Small wonder President Roosevelt, the man of the people, was able to marshal the forces of democracy against the tyranny of the Axis powers. Body listening will help you to be as effective in your field as the president was in his.
We’ve touched on only a few aspects of listening skills. There is so much more that could be explored on this topic. If we learn to sharpen our listening abilities, all sorts of good things will happen. We will become better wives, better mothers, better family members, better co-workers, better employers, better supervisors, better encouragers, and better advisers.
If we learn to really listen, it may be said of us as it was of one in bygone days—“and thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it” (Isa. 30:21). If we hear this voice, we are blessed indeed.
Information and material for this article taken from: Caring Enough to Hear and Be Heard, David Augsburger (Regal Books, 1982); The Awesome Power of the Listening Heart, John W. Drakeford (zondervan Publishing House, 1982); Listening & Caring Skills, John Savage (Abingdon Press, 1996).