The Art of the Listening Heart

Epictetus, an ancient Greek philosopher, observed "Nature gave us one tongue and two ears so we could hear twice as much as we speak." You’d think listening would be twice as easy since we have two ears, but it isn’t.

In my experience, while another speaks my thoughts clamour at the same time—things like my responses, remembering something I had forgotten to do, funny stories, and noticing inaccuracies in what the person is saying. Often, I find really listening is hard work.

Because I am sensitive to my own struggle with listening I also notice when others aren’t listening to me. I see it when their eyes start dancing with eagerness for me to finish what I am saying so they can speak. I see it when they go slack-jawed and glassy-eyed, like they’re mentally transported somewhere else while I am talking.

I bring this up because I believe it’s not just me—many leaders lack the art of listening, whether we’re Christians or not. I’m not talking about hearing the sermon, I’m referring to the lack of listening in relationships and on other levels.

Listening is an important element of effective leadership. As Hans Finzel wrote, “Effective leadership has more to do with listening than talking.”It shouldn’t surprise us to learn that many problems arising in churches and Christian organizations are not related to unspiritual or immature followers.

These problems can be traced back to leaders who simply fail to listen to those they profess to lead. Nothing shuts down communication faster and creates anger quicker in churches, marriages, families, or other organizations than failure to listen and people having the sense that they have not been heard. The wisdom of James is obvious, “Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear” (James 1:19 MSG).

There is a saying, “A fish rots from the head down.” Perhaps a lack of listening at the leadership level flavours congregations because the same problem occurs there too. We are so busy and consumed with our own stuff that we don’t take time to linger after a service to listen to others. The worship service ends and people clear out. Connections with others aren’t made, burdens aren’t shared, and isolationism is perpetuated. All in all, it’s an unhealthy situation in a church body.

Listening, or failing to listen, is an issue of integrity. Integrity means to be without pretense or hypocrisy. We lack integrity when we pretend to listen and are mentally somewhere else. We do it as leaders, as friends, in our marriage, and in our families. Someone shares their thoughts with us and we tune out. Then we spout advice in response but they know we weren’t listening so we lose credibility.

Through my struggle I’ve realized listening is not primarily about my ears. It is about my heart and is an act of love. To open my ears to hear I need to close my mouth as well as cultivate the art of a listening heart—a heart that isn’t solely concerned with my own interests but with the interests of others.

If I am going to lead others I must connect with them. Listening is connecting. Connecting is the key to influencing. Influencing is leading. If I don’t listen then I don’t connect and I won’t lead.

I need to cultivate a heart that listens between the lines—a heart that listens to the pauses and hears what’s not being said as well as the words themselves. It is about hearing the other person’s heart. It helps if I look people in the eye when they speak and listen with my eyes. When I lovingly take a genuine interest in the other person I do not find it hard to listen. It’s when I am self-centred as opposed to other-centred that listening is difficult.

It may be no mistake that ear, hear, and heart are all connected words. Although I may have two ears and one mouth, it is only when I have a listening heart that I will have ears to hear.

1. Hans Finzel, The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make (Cook Communications Ministries, Colorado Springs, 1994, 2000), p. 121.