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How Well Do You Truly Listen?

October 26, 2019

Another Way for week of October 25, 2019

How Well Do You Truly Listen?

Being part of a team that produced documentaries about the real-life experiences of ordinary people gave me many blessings, including a sharpened appreciation for the art of listening—truly listening to people’s stories.

I remember once when our producer was interviewing a woman who had lost her husband in a too-early death. Our video was focused on dealing with grief as survivors, and Jerry wanted her to tell about her experiences with that. But she had something she wanted to tell first: the story of her dear husband’s life. “You got the book backwards,” she chided the producer bravely. “First I want you to know how he lived.” Jerry was sensitive enough to listen as she shared even though he knew he could not end up using all the story in that documentary.

This story was brought to my mind recently in a book about how churches can better respond to the neighborhoods that surround them, listening to the stories of people: their hurts, triumphs, griefs, memories, and experiences. What does it take to truly listen? It means we listen for the back back back story, and refrain from jumping in with our own memories of similar stories.

In Neighborhood Church by Krin Van Tatenhove and Rob Mueller (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2019), Krin tells of a Navajo neighbor she had while living in New Mexico. Sometimes she would stop and talk for friendly conversation with him. “I tend to be extremely verbal, and after sharing my animated thoughts, I would stop and wait for a response.” The man would sit there with “open eyes, a wide smile, and silence.”

This disturbed her. At first she wondered if he had disabilities, or a fear of socializing with others, but as she grew more comfortable with this long awkward pause, he would finally “respond with words that were often wise and precise.” The Navajo custom is to let another person finish talking, and allow silence to occur for a long pause—to make sure the other person is finished talking and allowing the conversation to sink in. “It is a sign of respect, and to make sure that they have heard the whole story before responding or reacting. Navajos believe listening is a sacred part of being in harmony with the world and others,” Krin writes.

That reminder helped me remember another interview our producer Jerry did with a Cheyenne chief and Mennonite pastor, Lawrence Hart. In that interview on forgiveness, Lawrence talked about the ills and wrongs committed against native peoples. He talked very very slowly—and with the great wisdom mentioned by Krin in her book. It was, frankly, a bit of an exercise to listen to without speeding on ahead and (of course was edited with great care). But I’ve tried to remember this skill in listening to others. We all want to be listened to.

Teens and young adults today speak so-o-o-o rapidly and as I’m getting harder of hearing, it is often hard to catch what they are saying. I’m sure other readers share this frustration. But older adults also have the problem of butting in to each other’s stories and not really listening to what the other one is saying. Right?

The Catholic custom of confessing regularly to a priest behind a veiled screen gives another example of deep listening. In a new novel, Light from Distant Stars, (Revell, 2019) the main character is dealing with the imminent death of his father. He suspects that his announcement to his father that he would not be taking over the family funeral home business may have brought about the situation where his father is being kept alive by a ventilator. The Catholic priest who comes in the middle of the night to listen to Cohen’s doubts and confessions (even though this longtime priest is technically retired) are revealing. The author, Shawn Smucker, asks and reflects on the important questions of faith as the priest models a listening ear.

Do you long to be heard—listened to? Are you good at giving time and space to others trying to get through the din to tell you their story, and how they are truly doing? Or do you too quickly move on to your own story and reflections? Good questions for us all.


How do you rate your listening skills?

What do you look for as signs that someone is truly listening?

How have you worked at being a better listener?



Comment here or send your thoughts and stories on this topic. Send to or write to Another Way Media, P.O. Box 363, Singers Glen, VA 22834.

Learn here about a project called the Listen First Movement.

Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. She is the author of nine books. Another Way columns are posted at a week after newspaper publication.




  1. Elaine permalink

    Oh, Melody, this is such good advice especially in today’s world of social media where we think we need to jump right in with our opinions. 🙂 May we take this to heart and truly listen when someone wants to share their heart with us. On the flip side most of us have probably experience a few times when someone “blew” us off. Thank you for this reminder.

    • I’m glad to know this resonated. Now, to practice it myself. Actually, focusing on listening helps take the burden of saying something wise off my shoulders. Thanks for jumping in with a comment.

  2. Maintaining good eye contact and responding every so often with an Uh-huh or Mmm are often signs of a good listener. Jumping in to soon with one’s own opinion is a tell-tale sign of a poor listener.

    Ii need to be more like a Navaho listener.

    • Good points, Marian. Yes to eye contact and I like your ending resolution. I had not really known it was a cultural thing to wait so long between words and sentences.

  3. I loved reading about the Navajo custom of listening and allowing the space of silence in between. So often I’m chatting with someone and they’re bursting in before I’m done and rushing on with their own part of the conversation I often wonder if they’ve even heard the words I uttered. And yes, I must admit that I too am too often guilty of my mind racing ahead with what I want to say, that I too often am not hearing the person that is speaking too me. Ouch! When I turn the mirror back on myself, I flinch as I see that this lesson applies to me too.
    Thank you for a great post that we can take to heart.

    • Trisha, thanks for your kind words and that it made you think not only about others, but your own habits as well. Me too. I need to do better. Glad it connected!

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