Listening is a vitally important skill and as powerful a means of communication and influence as to talk well. We spend 45% of our time doing it. Yet 75% of the time we are meant to be listening, we are distracted or preoccupied, and we only comprehend about 25% of what we hear.

The historian, Paul Johnson, recently wrote in Forbes Magazine: “Any leader aspiring to greatness must do two things, and he must do them not just at supreme moments or occasionally but all the time. Of course, there are many other things a leader must do, but these are the two that matter most: to listen and to tell the truth.” Here are seven ways to improve your listening (and leading).

1. Careful listening
When was the last time you had a phone conversation without checking your email, or filing, or driving, etc., at the same time?  When was the last time you had a face-to-face conversation that you stayed with mentally and emotionally from start to finish?

Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project stormed it’s way to the top of the New York Times Bestsellers List, but Linda Stone’s Attention Project might actually be the best way to start any Happiness Project. Stone argues that most of us operate with “continual partial attention,” She distinguishes CPA from the simple and useful multi-tasking of the past, and warns that it leads to over-stimulation, a cascade of stress hormones, and a lack of fulfillment. The remedy, she says, is to re-train ourselves to pay attention.

Make sure you are paying continuous careful attention to what the person is saying. Listen for change of tone, volume, pace, intensity, and for pauses. Unless you have pre-arranged it with the listener(s), do not interrupt conversations and meetings by checking your email or taking a phone call. And don’t be looking everywhere else when talking or listening to someone.

2. Patient listening
We can think at 1000-3000 words per minute (wpm) and listen at 400-500 wpm; but the average speaker speaks at 125-175 wpm. We have to deliberately slow down our minds to listen well.  Don’t interrupt and don’t jump in immediately; that looks as if you were not listening but really just waiting to speak

3. Loving listening
What makes a man a great preacher? Not sure if “being a great listener” would be among the top answers. Yet, that’s what Burk Parsons persuasively argues in The Wisdom of Listening:

In fact, the greatest speakers, the greatest teachers, and the greatest preachers are the greatest listeners. Often, it is assumed that in order to be a great preacher one must merely be a great speaker. However, it must be understood (especially by men who are training for future pastoral ministry) that the greatest preachers, the most consistent, steadfast, staunchly biblical preachers are the greatest listeners.

Burk says that great listening produces great preachers because “they have earned the right to be heard.” Years of listening and learning have produced wisdom that’s worth hearing. Burk’s focus here is on the head: great listeners are great learners.

I’m going to “piggy-back” on Burk’s insight and also add a focus on the heart: great listeners are great lovers. Let me quickly explain what I mean. Passionate love produces passionate listening. One of the best ways to communicate “I love you,” is to communicate, “I’m listening to you,” even when what the person is saying is so boring or so wrong.

When people feel listened to, they feel loved, and respond with loving listening. When people sense that their pastor is carefully and prayerfully listening to them in their homes on a Thursday evening, it’s so much easier to listen to him on a Sunday morning. His great listening in their homes produces great listening in the church. In fact, his great listening transforms him (in their hearts and minds) into a great preacher.

4. Gracious listening
The pastor is a trained communicator. That’s his business. He’s good at it – or should be. Most people have not had the training or practice that we have had, their speaking skills may be poor, and we may catch ourselves wanting to get away. Try to listen to the content rather than judge how they are saying it (stop counting the coughs, eh’s, ah’s, etc.) or how they appear.

There are others who are passionate about something (like their arthritis!) that completely bores you; and again you are tempted to excuse yourself. Or you see the multi-millionaire pass while you are talking to an unemployed man, and the money-man seems to be so much more interesting.

Listening gives us an opportunity to exercise grace to the poor speakers, the boring speakers, the unimportant speakers. Think about how God listens to your poor, boring and unimportant prayers!

5. Interactive listening
Listening is not just one person talking and the other person standing there doing nothing. Good listeners interact with what they hear, which in turn encourages the speaker to keep going.

  • Remind that you are listening with short affirmations and nods.
  • Repeat what is said from time to time:  “Did I hear you say……?”
  • Rephrase what you heard to show you are not just listening but understanding: “You mean that he actually..?”
  • Reflect the feeling that accompanies what is said: “You seem to be (upset, lonely, etc).”

6. Body listening
In a sense everybody is bilingual – we all have verbal language and body language. Statistics show good communicators make eye-contact 50% of the time when speaking and 90% of the time when listening.We also listen with our eyebrows, our facial expressions, our arms, our body angle (facing = warm, turned away = cold), our posture (erect = defensive, bowed shoulders = teachable), our legs (open = friendly, crossed = resistant), hands (fist = aggressive, open = friendly), angle (leaning away = disbelieving, leaning in = interested). Talk to a border guard or an immigration officer if you want an intensive course in body language.

7. Christ-like listening
Listening, when done well is a tiring activity. It is an active rather than a passive ability and a lot of it it should leave you feeling exhausted. But listening is also a rewarding activity. It is personally rewarding and people will reward you too. As we have seen people are more likely to listen to you if you listen to them. But listening should be a natural activity. Sometimes a discussion like this can make a person analyze themselves and everyone else in a scientific way. Try to absorb some of these lessons, but let them become second nature to you rather than a conscious effort. Finally, listening is a Christ-like activity. He is not only the greatest Message, and the greatest Communicator, but also the greatest Listener.