Does Anyone Really Listen
Covenant of Sensitivity: Even
as I desire to be known and understood by you, I covenant to be
sensitive to you and to your needs to the best of my ability.
I will try to hear you, see you, and feel where you are, and I
will try to draw you out of discouragement or withdrawal.
o you ever wish there was someone who would just sit back and
listen to you — no matter what you have to say? It was a
late Friday afternoon in the fall of 1988, but I remember my feelings
as if it were yesterday. I had been working long hours, for days
on end, as president of our family company. When I turned off
the lights in my office and got set to leave, I realized that
I was going to miss dinner with the kids — again! It was
the umpteenth time that month, and now I had let them down one
more time. I had also let my wife down and, if the truth were
known, I had let myself down. I didn't want life to be this way.
As I took the elevator to the ground floor of
our office building and strolled across the plaza toward the parkade,
I glanced up at the reflecting pool and the bust of my grandfather,
the man after whom the five office towers of the Bentall Centre
are named. I felt as if he was looking down at me with disappointment.
He had been such a great man and always seemed to have things
under control. So why couldn't I keep my life together?
All my failures began to flood my consciousness:
I wasn't making the progress that I hoped for with our company,
despite ten years of trying; I wasn't doing a very good job as
a father, despite fifteen years of effort; I wasn't succeeding
in building a happy, fulfilling marriage after almost twenty years;
and I didn't feel like a very good disciple of Christ, even after
thirty years. My shoulders slumped. As I shuffled toward the door
of the garage, I punched Bob's number into my cell phone. He responded
to my broken voice with the innocent question, "What's wrong?"
Out tumbled a tirade of my seeming failures.
"I'm a failure at work, a failure at home,
and a failure in everything I do!" I listed the board that I served
on and lamented my inadequacy in my contribution to this group
too. I then reflected on my fitness goals and how, there too,
I had failed. On top of all this, I also felt the need to point
out that I didn't read enough books, didn't keep up with letters
to my friends, and so on. The list was endless. Bob just listened.
Once I finished, Bob remained quiet for a moment
longer. Then he simply said, "You can't do everything you're trying
to do. You need to give yourself some grace." At first his words
didn't make sense, but as I let them sink in, they began to unshackle
me. He was right. I needed to cut myself some slack. Bob could
see I was overwhelmed and he responded by giving me permission
to not have to do everything I was trying to do.
Don't get me wrong. It's important to work hard,
and it's right to be committed to your family and other responsibilities.
It's good to stay fit and to sharpen your mind by reading. At
some point, however, we will all find ourselves failing if we
try to do it all. On those occasions we can all use a friend who
will come alongside us and really listen to what resides in our
hearts. Bob gave me a great gift that day. In his gentle, reassuring
way, he said that no matter what my accomplishments were or weren't,
he still loved me — and God still loved me.
Listening with Sensitivity
As a friend, Bob has always been a great listener,
and I am strengthened in knowing that he has pledged to listen
to me for the rest of our lives. Years ago our friendship grew
substantially as we regularly ran four or five miles together
before work several times a week. Our fitness and running skills
improved, but an added benefit was that as we ran, Bob patiently
listened as I spilled out my difficulties, especially my confusion
and stress in both my work and marriage. He heard the cry of my
heart and encouraged me to press on. His caring response enabled
me to get through those days.
Carson's listening skills have also been invaluable.
I'll never forget the day he came over to our house just after
Alison and I had experienced one of our darkest, most discouraging
times together. I was upstairs in my bedroom with tears staining
my cheeks. Carson came in the back door and asked Alison, on a
scale of 1 to 10, how things were in our relationship. She said
"minus 400!" Carson came upstairs and found me stretched out on
our bed, unable to cope. He didn't try to fix things but simply
said, "I'm here. What's going on?" The words were simple, but
they gave me the opportunity to speak. He listened as I poured
out my heart, and before long I was able to go downstairs and
rejoin Alison in a spirit of forgiveness and renewal.
Bob Shares His Thoughts
Bob: Henri Nouwen writes, "The mystery
of one man is too immense and too profound to be explained by
another man." So how can we really understand the life experiences
and problems of others? Each of us is so different. That is certainly
true of David and me.
I was born into humble circumstances and grew
up as part of a large, extended family that shared life on a farm
in the Okanagan Valley. We had little in the way of material wealth.
On the other hand, David was definitely from the right side of
the tracks; he was well known, well to do, and very urban. As
our friendship developed, I found our differences intimidating
— I didn't know that I could contribute anything to an asset-rich
life, and a circumstance and life experience that I did not understand.
Ironically, it was David's father who taught
me how to bridge this gulf of personal histories. Each week, Clark
Bentall would invite a special guest to lunch on the thirty-second
floor of Bentall Three (or occasionally at the Vancouver Club).
As in-house legal counsel to the Bentall Group, I was often invited
to tag along (although I sometimes felt like a street urchin being
treated kindly by the rich neighbors). Clark always made a point
of making me feel welcome. He often seated me beside him at the
long, mahogany table beautifully set with fine silverware and
china. In his kind and gentlemanly way, Clark taught me the skill
of listening. He didn't just passively sit there nodding between
mouthfuls. Instead, he asked probing questions that required our
guests to disclose important, valuable, and even personal information.
While some might have characterized this process as self-serving,
I would beg to differ. We certainly learned a great deal at those
mealtime meetings, but in most cases the information was utilized
to enable Clark to better serve these clients, his community,
and his company. Never once did I hear of any betrayal of confidences
or improper use of information gained at one of those lunches.
Lawyers tend to be much better talkers than
listeners. Law schools teach them how to speak but fail to mention
effective listening skills. I was inclined no differently. But
as I observed Clark, first listening, then asking probing questions,
I found myself striving to emulate him. I wanted to listen to
understand, not necessarily to respond. Suddenly my questions
became more important than my answers.
It is curious that the simple act of listening
can be such a gift. It rarely results in a profound solution but
perhaps there is a talking cure if only someone will listen. This
is biblical as well — one of God's greatest gifts to us
is his willingness to tirelessly listen to us. As I practice this
with David or Carson (or as they listen to me), I am able to effectively
communicate care and acceptance. They feel understood —
even if I can't assist in the actual solving of the problem. It
enables a cathartic process or unburdening to occur and trust
to be built. Listening has truly built a bridge between our worlds
and, in the process, David and I have both felt more loved and
Listening Is Good . .
. but Look for Clues before You Respond
By giving others our full attention as they
speak to us, we are not only more likely to understand what they
are trying to tell us, but we also give respect and honor to the
friendship or relationship. Every relationship would benefit by
this, but sometimes respect and sensitivity only happen once we
make a conscious change in our patterns of relating to others.
I've wrestled with this problem personally, but I've discovered
that both these qualities come more readily when I take time to
utilize the following simple steps:
1. Observe what's happening to others.
2. Consider their needs and feelings.
3. Respond with appropriate words and
1. Observe. Many of us wander through
life oblivious to the feelings and needs of others. But if we
are observant, we can learn to be aware of how others are feeling
by noticing their body language. It doesn't take much study to
perceive whether someone is relaxed and comfortable or uptight
and fidgety. As we read the signs we can adjust how we approach
that person. These same observational skills need to be practiced
in our interaction with friends. If someone's body language changes
or if the person doesn't seem quite himself, we should take the
time to ask why.
2. Consider. The second step is to
consider what we do and how it may affect others. That is, we
need to pay attention to how others' feelings and/or needs are
affected by what we say and do. A classic Harvard Business
Review article explains how we can get insights into others'
emotions by listening to what they say through their "word metaphors."
For example, if a colleague says he "struck out" with a particular
client, we can deduce that business for him today feels like a
baseball game. He may be discouraged, but it still feels like
good, healthy competition. On the other hand, if he says, he was
"blown out of the water," he may be feeling more like he is at
war. He may be disappointed but might also feel afraid or fearful
about his livelihood. I wouldn't attempt to read too much into
such phrases, but they can give us terrific insight into how others
3. Respond. By choosing to take into
account how others appear through their body language, the words
they use and what we already know about their feelings, we can
adjust our words and behaviors to be more sensitive in how we
respond. There is one particular time that I recall using these
three elements in an attempt to assist an employee. I was sitting
at my desk, at one of our family company's division offices. By
just glancing up, I could see most of our managers as they arrived
at work and walked past my office door. However, as it often is
in a busy office, everyone was eager to get a jump on the day's
projects, so they would rarely stop to greet me in the morning.
One day, I looked up as a coworker passed by
my office. I noticed that his body language seemed different somehow.
He seemed stooped and heavy, and just looking at him made me wonder
if something was wrong. I followed him to his office and asked
if everything was all right. At first, he put up a brave front,
but I wasn't convinced. In fact, even as he talked, I could sense
that he was hurting. I gently probed further. He then broke down
and told me that his teenage daughter had just run away from home!
We ended up talking at great length, and I was able to offer him
some support and encouragement.
After observing this man's body language
as he walked by my office door, I chose to act on that observation
and take time to listen to him. I then considered his
specific needs. Based on both my observations and my considerations
of his needs as I talked to him. Lastly, I was able to respond
with a word of encouragement and some support. There was
nothing elaborate about what I did; it was three simple steps
that any of us can take. But in choosing to take those steps,
I made a significant difference to one man's life. It also served
as a good reminder to me to be more observant of others, especially
those close to me.
C o n c l u s i o n
Well-known counselor and author Dr. Larry Crabb
says, "Speaking is the gateway to relationship. Silence is the
gatekeeper." Transformational friendships require that men truly
listen to one another with sensitivity and respect. Carson, Bob,
and I have been able to do that by habitually taking time to observe
how we are doing, taking time to consider what impact
our words might have on one another, and then carefully adjusting
our responses to reflect what we have heard and observed.
These important skills have benefited our covenant
relationship, but they are applicable to other relationships as
well. Taking time to respond works to build trust in any relationship
I admit that I used to be a selfish listener
and focused most of my conversational energy on preparing what
I wanted to say. However, I have discovered how wonderful it is
when others listen deeply to me. As a consequence, I am trying
to actively develop this skill, whether it is in discussions with
my wife, family, friends, or business associates.
Why not take some time to listen to
a friend today?
Everyone should be quick to
listen . . . slow to speak. —