How well do you communicate? Most of us will answer in light of our ability to present our thoughts and ideas in cogent ways. But I would suggest that the finest art of communication in our family life is not expressing our ideas. It is understanding the thoughts and ideas of the other people in the family.
This is a recurring theme of the book of Proverbs. "A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion" (Prov. 18:2). The agenda of a fool in conversation is getting things off his chest. Even when he is not speaking, he is not truly listening. He is simply shaping what he will say next. His next volley in the conversation is not returning the ball you served, but serving a new ball.
We have all been fools in conversation. Years ago, I had a late-night talk with my son. I had something to say. He quickly realized that he would be listening. At the end of my monologue I said: "Well, I am glad we had a chance to talk. I am going to pray with you and go to bed." Within minutes, he was knocking on my bedroom door: "Dad, you said you were glad we had a good talk. I just wanted to point out that I did not say anything." I was a fool that night. I could have had a real conversation. I could have asked good questions. Everything I wanted to say could have been said in the context of drawing my son out. Instead, I found no pleasure in understanding him; I was interested only in expressing my own opinion.
A later verse in Proverbs 18 observes, "If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame." (v. 13) The fool responds without really hearing, with no careful thought or consideration. Speaking in haste is shameful. When we don't listen, we disclose a low regard for the other's words and a high regard for our own.
Parents frequently answer before listening. Your daughter begins to ask a question, but you interrupt her: "I know what you are going to ask. The answer is, ‘No.'"
"But, Dad," she responds.
"What part of ‘No' do you not understand?"
"But, Dad, I didn't even ask my question."
"You don't have to ask your question. I'm your dad, I know what you're going to say before you speak."
My daughter never walks away from this interchange grateful for a father who can read minds. She feels provoked. She feels powerless in the face of my caprice. I may have even violated the warning of Ephesians 6:4: "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger."
Notice the virtue of listening in Proverbs 20:5: "The purpose in a man's heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out." The goals and motivations of the human heart are not easily discovered. The patience, skill, and ability of an understanding person are required to draw out those deep waters.
Various nuances of the importance of listening are reflected in these verses. Proverbs 18:2 places a priority on where we find pleasure in conversation. The wise man delights in understanding the person with whom he is speaking. Proverbs 18:13 emphasizes slowing down so that we may answer with full comprehension of what is being said. Proverbs 20:5 focuses on active listening. Listen to what is being said and to what is not being said, and ask questions that draw out the deep waters within the heart.
Family life thrives on thoughtful listening. We show respect for others when we listen. Listening says: "I value you and what you are saying; I value it so highly that I will do whatever I can to facilitate your communication. I believe that the time taken to listen is a good investment. I will listen and find joy in understanding the meaning and intent of your words."
Active listening strengthens relationships. Wives, children, and husbands long to be understood. What could better express a desire for meaningful relationships than listening? What could better communicate a desire to know and understand someone? When you listen to others, your influence in their lives increases. Relationships are strengthened.
Listening tightens the knots of loyalty and commitment to one another. People long to be understood, to sense that their words carry weight, that their ideas receive a thoughtful hearing.
Thoughtful listening is important for family life. Your family is your child's most foundational social community. Family life will flourish in homes where people not only talk but also listen. What builds unity in marriage and loyalty in children? A husband who listens, who delights in understanding, builds a marriage. A wife who hears and can even reframe her husband's words in her own words builds a marriage. Couples who are skillful at asking questions that draw out the heart's deep waters build a marriage. Does your spouse feel his or her words are valued, that you will delight in understanding, and try to grasp and to think through issues with clarity? Does your spouse feel safe; that his or her words will not be twisted to your convenience? Listening spouses model effective communication skills and biblical relationships for watching children.
We want our children to be good listeners. We want them to value our words, so we model for our children the kind of listening skills we wish to instill. Solomon's words to his son could not be clearer:
My son, keep your father's commandment, and forsake not your mother's teaching. Bind them on your heart always; tie them around your neck. When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk with you. For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life (Prov. 6:20–23).
Thoughtful listening provides children with great treasures: guidance, protection, and instruction. Light and life are all found by listening to Mom and Dad.
What keeps us from being thoughtful listeners? There are both simple and profound answers. The simple answer is that listening is expensive. It requires changing the pace at which we live our lives. It takes time. I remember one night having a conversation with a long-term houseguest. I asked a question and sat while he pondered the answer for forty-five minutes. That may be extreme, but conversation is often punctuated by long pauses of musing, reflecting, organizing thoughts and ideas. Frequently a thorough conversation with a good listener will be the anvil on which complex thoughts and deep feelings are hammered out.
The more profound answer to the question has to do with our humanity. We are members of a fallen race. We are proud, and proud people don't listen well. We are fearful people, and fear keeps us from entrusting ourselves to others. We think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We are frequently hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. We are compulsively self-serving and often too full of ourselves to humbly listen to others.
These are not just communication skill problems, they are spiritual problems. Our pride, fear, and self-love all work against the humility defined in James 1: "Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God" (vv. 19–20). Radical internal renovation is needed if we are to be quick to hear and slow to speak.
Thankfully, we are not left to our own resources and efforts at self-improvement. Christ came into our world. Think of how the incarnation speaks to our communication needs. He so valued understanding and identifying with us that He took on flesh. Jesus did not stay off in the heavens watching our struggles. He came to us. He took on flesh like ours. He had a human psychology. He experienced everything we experience without ever sinning. He lived in our world. He is able to see the world through our eyes. Hebrews 2 reminds us that He had to be made like His brothers in every way; He had to fully identify with us so that He could redeem us. That means He knows our struggles with listening. He, too, was tempted to speak when He should have listened. Isaiah 53:7 says that, as our sacrifice, He did not even open His mouth. Our Savior has gone into this challenge ahead of us. And He has triumphed. He got it right.
Jesus Christ's experience of the same struggles we face with listening is the key for us. "Because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted" (Heb. 2:18). This means I can go to a willing, able, powerful Savior in my times of struggle. His experience of life in my world—as the One who remains fully man and fully God—enables Him to help me in the face of the temptation to speak when I should listen.