Personally, I always thought I was a fairly good listener. That was until I attended a class on listening. It was only then that I realized I had been a very poor listener for most of my life. The Presenter spoke about the different levels of listening. He represented listening as a team building experience because we often get into trouble since we don’t want to hear the other person before we speak.
Scriptures has several comments about our human proclivity to prefer speaking instead of listening: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;” (James 1:9 ESV). Also, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Proverbs 18:2). Ouch!
Effective listening is an art that is perfected over time, requiring consistent effort to improve. This is especially true in a spiritual context whereby we need to learn to listen to God. As we continue to place our ears near God’s words, we develop our proficiency in listening to hear the Father’s voice and we practice to perfect this art.
Effective listening is at the heart of everything we do as leaders, as followers of Christ, whether we are getting feedback at work or to try to choose paint colors with our spouse, or understand our homework assignments and more importantly, messages in church services.
The single concept of the importance of listening to scripture is found in Mark 4:9,23: “. . . He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” The entire chapter of parables can be summarized by those words. Jesus is speaking about different reactions people have upon hearing His teaching because hearing is passive. You can’t close your ears, so sounds will enter and be heard. This makes it involuntary.
For example, you can be watching television, hearing a train go by, or the neighbor’s dog barking and all of that is just hearing. On the other hand, listening requires attention. It is active. Attention creates the difference between listening and hearing. This is important to understand. So, I want to share with you the three levels of listening because once we have an awareness or understanding, it will help us to become better listeners.
Contemporary literature typically defines the three levels of listening in the following context: Level 1, internal listening. Listening to our inner voice. Level 2, focused listening. Listening intently to another person. Level 3, global listening. Listening to others in the context of their entire surroundings. These levels are insightful and effectively describe the action of listening.
Listening to Speak
Most of us start here and remain here unless we are intentional about developing our listening skills. At this level, we are not really listening to others when they talk. Rather, while they are speaking, we are mostly just thinking about the next thing we want to say. This is the lowest level of listening. Listening to speak has the most potential to create misunderstandings and often cause us to miss key information in conversations.
Listening to Hear
At this level, we are actively paying attention to what the other person is saying. We are not thinking about what we want to say next or distracted by other things. We are totally focused on the other person. Most of us can get here in select situations if we are motivated, like when we are on a date with our first love. Nevertheless, our motivation to listen waxes and wanes depending on who we are with. But, at this level, we’re not trying to take control of the conversation and direct the attention back onto ourselves.
Listening to Understand
Few of us can reach this highest level of listening without intentional practice. At this level, we are not only paying attention to what others are saying but also to what they mean.
For example: If your spouse asks if you would be at Suzie’s last music class, she often is not asking simply for the sake of the class; she is trying to convey a deeper feeling. In this scenario, she’s trying to tell you she does not feel like you consider them as a priority because you often come home late from work and miss important events. This music class was not the issue, merely the tipping point. It’s a downward spiral from there. When we notice the subtle cues and context of what others say, it enables us to get the main concern at a deeper understanding.
Dr. Albert Mehrabian did a study entitled 7, 38, 55 rules of personal communication. These numbers correlate to percentages that make up elements of personal communication or skills of level 3 listening. Only 7% of listening is the spoken word. 38% is voice, tone, and tempo, and 55% is body language. Clearly it is important to recognize the 38% voice, tone, and tempo and the 55% body language in front of us.
Understanding that there is often much more to what is actually being said is a starting point in trying to understand a situation. Depending on the situation, a proper analysis needs to occur to fully grasp the person’s current emotions at that time and at that moment. One way of increasing our accuracy is applying the three C’s of nonverbal communication which is context, clusters, and congruence.
Context includes what environment the situation is taking place in, the history between the people, the other factors such as each person’s role. For example, an interaction between a husband and a wife, a young adult and a parent, or a boss and an employee.
Looking for noncommunication gestures and clusters prevents us from allowing a single gesture or movement to be defined in determining a person’s state of mind or emotion. Crossing one’s arms across the chest can be a sign of being resistant or closed minded, however, if a person’s shoulders are raised and their teeth are chattering, they might just be cold.
Finally, congruence refers to asking if something is wrong. Do the spoken words match the tone and body language? For example, after someone falls and they verbally state they are fine, but their face is grimacing and their voice is shaky, you might want to probe a little deeper.
The 7, 38, 55 elements of communication along with the three C’s of nonverbal communication remind us that when trying to understand others, a single gesture or comment does not necessarily mean something. Instead, these theories allow us to be more intentional about our listening. Allowing us to take note and observe more to get a much deeper understanding as to what is going on.
With this fuller understanding of level 3 listening, I want to revisit Mark 4 within the parable of the lamp under the basket and break it down to give us a deeper understanding: “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear. Then He said to them, ‘Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given. For whoever has, to him more will be given; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him’. Then He said to them, ‘Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given’” (Mark 4:23-25).
Jesus isn’t talking about riches, talents, blessings, or influence, He is talking about insight into His message. Those who have wisdom into spiritual things receive that wisdom because they ask for it. The “more” referred to that will be given, isn’t power, influence, or material possessions, it’s spiritual wisdom. Jesus is saying that if we approach His teaching as if we are carrying a big basket, our basket will be filled with understanding.
The disciples stayed with Jesus because they listened to understand and asked for insight into the parables. Knowledge of the Kingdom of God increases and decreases exponentially. If we bring a large vessel to be filled with knowledge, it will be filled to overflowing.
Hence, it is important to fully understand the skills of listening. If we bring a small vessel of listening skills, it will be filled initially but then lost over time. Our measure consists of our time, attention, and submission to the words of God. The intentional applications of scripture in our lives are all part of a large vessel of listening skills.
Paul captures this concept very well: “But this I say: ‘He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully’” (2 Corinthians 9:6).
The Light that should not be put under a bushel should not only be expressed in words that make up only 7% of listening, but also in voice, tone, tempo, and body language. It is possible to hear and understand and accept only a portion of Jesus’ messages. Jesus warns His casual listeners that to follow Him and receive His salvation requires more than picking and choosing what we want to believe and understand.
Truly listening to God requires that we stop trying to interject our own thoughts and opinions. What seems right to us. We need to listen to what He says and the intent of it. Christ is saying that we must listen deeply at a level 3 listening. Discover what He means by His words and what it means in our lives. Only then can we apply what we hear in the manner that leads all of us closer to the mind of God.