Few doubt the power of a good listener. This is why we have counselors, spiritual directors, coaches, and (in the missions world) debriefers. Basically, we pay people to listen because effective listening is a learned and precious skill. And a gift from God.
I recently had the privilege of being debriefed. I recounted something I was wrestling with to someone who listened actively and non-judgmentally. As I processed aloud, I found I could release the angst that incident had produced and find clarity. I realized I could let it go and no longer dwell on it.
Telling one’s story in a safe place brings resolution, healing, and growth. This requires someone who will offer their presence and listen. Like Jesus does.
On the day of Jesus’s resurrection, he joins two disciples on their way to a village called Emmaus (Luke 24:13). The narrative identifies only one of them by name—Cleopas—but since the pronoun can be either male or female, it is possible his wife accompanies him. As they walk, they discuss all the traumatic and stressful events they have just experienced in Jerusalem (Luke 24:14–15).
Jesus indicates his interest and invites them to share their story.
“What are these matters you are discussing so intently as you walk along?” And they stood still, looking sad.Luke 24:17
Don’t miss this. His question prompts an emotional response. And Jesus stands with them. He enters their grief. He offers his presence. No judgment. No comment. All this before anyone says anything else. After a period of silence, Clops speaks.
Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened there in these days?”
He said to them, “What things?”Luke 24:18–19
Here Jesus demonstrates another powerful tool. Rather than jumping in and answering Cloepas’s question, he continues to elicit their story by asking another “what” question.
This technique works because they spill out everything concerning Jesus—who he was, how he died, their dashed hopes, the news of his empty tomb, and their confusion about the reports that Jesus is alive (Luke 24:19–24).
While they tell their story, Jesus listens. (And I think they said more than Luke records in these six verses and spoke longer than it takes for us to read them.) He models active, open-ended, others-centered listening. He does not interrupt, ask for more details, share his own experience, take over the conversation, correct, redirect, or even agree. He simply lets them debrief. Only after they are finished pouring everything out does he respond.
Likewise, a good listener seeks to lead the speaker to discover the story behind the story. My counselor husband often says, “It’s not about this, it’s about that.” Hearing ourselves speak in the presence of a good listener helps us discover what this is really about.
I propose that if friends, spouses, roommates, family members, even strangers, listen well, we might prevent burnout, stress, unresolved anguish. Of course, we will always need the professionals, especially for trauma related issues, but there is great power in effective listening.
James 1:19 instructs us to be quick to listen and slow to speak. So how can you give the gift of good listening?
- Make this about them, not you: don’t interrupt, share your own story, or ask questions for your own curiosity
- Listen with your body: make eye contact, nod, lean in
- Sit with silence: a pause means they’re thinking, count to 10 before responding
- Look for their emotion: What is this bringing up in you? What’s that like for you?
- Listen without judging: remain neutral, don’t imply they are good or bad
- Make direct observations: That’s a lot. That sounds hard.
- Offer tentative observations: It sounds like…, Might there be…?
- Invite further conversation, instead of thinking of your reply: What’s been going on? Say more about that. What else?
How can you offer the gift of listening to others? What would you like to tell Jesus about what has happened in your last few months?
Father God, help me to be a better listener. To get myself out of the way and truly hear what is beneath the words of those who need to share, to process, to get past their confusion. Bring clarity, healing, and resolution as people share their stories.
Listening principles adapted from: