The Lost Art of Listening

If all the policitcal debates filling our airwaves and social feeds are any indication, listening is a dying art. 

In the world of design, the first essential step to designing an effective tool is learning about the user. If we don’t intentionally take time to understand the user, ask questions and challenge our assumptions, we’ll end up making something that fails to serve the human it was created for. 

The same desire to understand must fuel our discussions and debates about any potentially divisive subject. When we start with listening, asking questions and challenging our own assumptions, we open ourselves to the possibility of understanding. 

In her recent interview with StoryCorps founder David Isay, Krista Tippett offered this quote on listening from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While Bonhoeffer was speaking specifically to leaders in the context of a Christian community, I believe his advice is relevant to all of us striving to build bridges with our brethren across the diverse family of humanity. 

“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.

So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.

This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.”