Yes, you heard that right. A listening class. I’d taken my fair share of public speaking classes, but a required listening course? What in the world would we do all semester? Test our ability to hear certain sounds? Practice unheard of ear exercises to make them stronger? Or would it be more like a reading comprehension thing, where we had to make sure we paid attention long enough to digest all the information we were presented with? As I walked through the doors on that Monday night in January, I had no idea what was in store.
I arrived early, as per usual, and found a seat toward the back of the room. It wasn’t quite the back row, but I thought it would still allow me to be fairly inconspicuous. I sat quietly and waited as more people entered the room and claimed their seats. Not long before we were scheduled to begin, our professor walked in. He went to the front of the room, unzipped the bag he carried, and took out a small brass gong. He placed it on the table beside him and stood there, silent, waiting.
At precisely 6:00pm, he said, simply, “Welcome to COM 230 Listening. I’d like to begin our time together with two minutes of silence.” And he proceeded to gently tap the gong, signaling the beginning of our silent start. We would begin each class the entire semester the same way.
That practice, though different, set the tone for everything I would soak in over the next four months. As you probably guessed, the course had absolutely nothing to do with the anatomy of our ears or our ability to audibly hear. It was more about the necessary, internal work of what it means to live a life that actively listens, seeks to understand, and contributes to building stronger, healthier relationships. And as the tap of the gong at the beginning of class so subtly symbolized, it begins with our being comfortable in the quiet.
That’s not to say our voices aren’t important or that we shouldn’t use them for good. I talk a lot about the power of our words in Episode 4. But I’ve noticed within myself and in conversations around me that we sure do like the sound of our own voices. And sometimes our being quiet can be difficult.
Maybe you can relate. I’ll be in the middle of a conversation with someone. I’m listening, making eye contact, not getting distracted, not interrupting, nodding along. All good things. But then I start to get caught up in planning out my response. So while I might appear to be engaged in what they are saying, I’ve actually stopped paying attention because all I can think about is what I’ll say next.
Maybe they are going through a difficult time, and they just shared a part of their experience that reminds me of another similar situation I’m aware of, and now I want to share it with them. It will help me connect, right?
Or we’re talking about everything going on in our world and they say something that I don’t agree with, so I begin for formulate my rebuttal and tune them out so that I can be sure they hear my take.
Or I'm just uncomfortable in the silence, so I feel the need to fill the quiet space with whatever I can come up with in the moment, without really thinking it through, without realizing that maybe my presence is enough right now.
Those scenarios are not necessarily wrong or bad in and of themselves. They can be riddled with good intention. But they ultimately miss the point of what it truly means to listen. Because at the end of the day, when we choose to listen, it’s not about us. Yes, we might end up gaining insight, learning, growing. It does have it’s personal benefits. But the art of listening is shaped by a posture of humility, and it leads to the development of wisdom.
In the beginning of her book, One, author Deidra Riggs writes about the heart of King Solomon. When we think of King Solomon today, one quality we might attribute to him is wisdom. His wisdom allowed him to lead God’s people well. And in her book, Deidra points us to a passage found in 1 Kings 3, at the beginning of King Solomon’s reign. I won’t read the entire passage to you right now, but I’m focusing in on verses 5-12 if you’d like to reference it. In the passage, God tells Solomon he can ask for whatever he wants as he begins his time as king. And this is Solomon’s reply in the New Living Translation:
“…but I am like a little child who doesn’t know his way around. 8 And here I am in the midst of your own chosen people, a nation so great and numerous they cannot be counted! 9 Give me an understanding heart so that I can govern your people well and know the difference between right and wrong. For who by himself is able to govern this great people of yours?”
And God meets Solomon’s request. God gives him an understanding heart, the gift of discernment, the gift of wisdom. And there are a couple of things I love about Solomon’s posture of humility in this passage.
The first is that he begins by admitting that he doesn’t have it all figured out, he doesn’t have all the answers, and he has the potential to get things wrong. He needs help, he needs guidance, he needs counsel as he leads.
He also places himself “in the midst” of the people he is leading. Not above them or better than them. But WITH them.
And finally, he asks for an understanding heart, a heart that is able to know the difference between right and wrong. He doesn’t ask for power or influence or wealth. He asks for wisdom. But what I learned from Deidra is that the term “understanding heart” or in some translations, “discerning heart” is rooted in the Hebrew word, Shama, which means to obey, hear, or, you guessed it, listen.
When we get to the root of it, Solomon was asking for the ability and willingness to listen. To listen to God and to be obedient to God’s lead, but to also listen to and seek to understand the people he was “in the midst” of. And I have to believe that if we yearn to be wise, if we seek to do what is right, if we want to engage in God’s Kingdom work, we have to be willing to adopt Solomon’s posture and listen, too. When we do,
We embrace a quiet heart that seeks to understand.
We shift our focus off ourselves and set ourselves aside.
We extend care and compassion.
We see what adds value, instead of noise, so when we do speak, it makes a difference.
We create space for meaningful connection.
We acknowledge the value of the person we are listening to, even if we don’t agree.
We learn where we might be lacking, and where there’s room to grow.
We, as my husband says, explore how we might preach the Gospel with our ears.
Today, may we remember the power of a listening ear and an understanding heart. May we choose to listen.