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The Art of Listening
You have likely heard someone make the distinction between hearing and listening. The New York Times did an article about this difference and pointed out that unlike all of our other senses, hearing is something that never stops. Unlike our sight, which shuts off while we sleep, we continue to hear. And yet, the article points out that we are a society that is dangerously close to losing the art of listening as a result of digital distraction and the never ending supply of information. So what’s the difference between people who hear and those people who truly listen?
It’s not a super power. It’s not something for which we can claim we don’t have the gift. The difference between hearing and listening is simply paying attention. The problem is that through habit, we train ourselves to tune out certain sounds from others. And if you are like me, you might have to confess that when it comes to listening to my neighbors, both in what they say and what I see, I’m not as attentive as I know God wants me to be. For many of us this habit of listening starts simply with being aware, of intentionally seeking out conversations and relationship with our neighbors, of being observant of both what they are saying and what they are communicating nonverbally. There is something truly powerful about giving the gift of our attention. David Oxberg says it this way, “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference.”
Asking good questions
When we have opportunities for conversation with our neighbors, we often ask superficial questions. Instead we could think about open-ended questions that can lead to more meaningful conversations. Some of my favorites are “What’s your story?” “What kind of things do you do for fun?” “What’s your spiritual background?” We have added some others below. Asking good questions can lead to knowing people better and figuring out how to love and serve them well.
Good listening is a habit we all can practice this week! And so here’s my challenge for each of us this week, to pray this prayer, “God, help me to attentively listen for the needs and interruptions of those around me. And graciously invest by asking questions.”
Sample questions for getting to know your neighbors
1. How would you define success in life? Why do you define it that way?
2. What kinds of things do you do for fun? When is the last time you did that?
3. Tell me more about your story –what is your background?
4. Tell me about your major in college. Why did you choose to study that?
5. Tell me about your family. How do you stay connected with them?
6. What is the most interesting spiritual experience you’ve ever had?
7. Did you grow up in a particular religion? Are you still connected to that faith? (If the answer is no, ask) What changed for you?
8. What has been your experience with the church/Christianity?
What are your favorite questions for starting a conversation?
Have you ever stopped to think that maybe it’s not an accident you live where you live? In the specific house where you live. On the specific lot that it sits? In the specific neighborhood where you live. In the town where you live? You say “of course it’s not an accident. We looked a long time for that apartment, or shopped a long time for that house. And we were pretty specific. It was the only one that fit the bill. You know, the right number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and the right floorplan, in the right school district, the right distance from work in the right price range. Of course it’s not an accident.” And I know, that’s all right. But what about even beyond that?
Have you ever thought maybe God had a purpose for that house being that house in that neighborhood and coming on the market at that time so that you would live in it? That He might have a plan for you living in that place at this moment in history because of something He’s doing in your life and maybe in the lives of the people around you?
What if God has a purpose for where you live inside of His purpose for you and the people around you? What if He’s placed you where He’s placed you because He’s doing something right where you live – wanting to show and tell people where you live who He is – and He wants to use you to be a part of it? And, what if it’s not as difficult, or as weird, or as religious, or as scary as you’re afraid it might be to be a part of what God’s doing right where you live?
That’s why we are doing this blog. Because we don’t just believe it’s possible. We see evidence on almost every page of Scripture that it’s exactly how God tends to work. And it may be simpler than you think. We’re hoping through this blog you’ll read some really simple tips, ideas and encouragement so that you too can be a part of what God is doing in neighborhoods all across our city, and all around the world. All through normal, ordinary, terrified, people like you who simply decided to love where they live.
It’s true that when Jesus commands us to love our neighbor in Luke 10, He defines neighbor as “anyone near you who needs you.” But you and I pass a whole lot of “anyones” every single day and many of them have needs. Since we can’t meet all their needs, most of us meet none of their needs. Especially when the people around us don’t seem to have obvious needs like the unconscious guy laying by the side of the road in the Good Samaritan story. Dave Runyon, says it this way, “When we aim for everything, we hit nothing.”
If we’re not careful, we turn Jesus’ command into a philosophy that sounds good, but that we have absolutely zero intention (or ability) of actually obeying… the exact opposite of the attitude Jesus was arguing for in telling the Good Samaritan story.
Maybe we need a baby step. Enter the Block Map.
We learned about this from Dave Runyon (if you’re interested in neighboring, his book “The Art of Neighboring” is the absolute best place we know of to start).
It’s awfully hard to love someone if you don’t know their name, so begin there. Think about the 8 actual neighbors who live closest to you and make it your goal to write down all their names on your block map. That may mean an awkward “Hey, we’ve been living here 12 years and haven’t ever met” conversation, but that’s okay. If you think about it, a situation like that is awkward whether you name it or not!
As you go along, you can add relevant information about their family, occupations, hometowns, or hobbies that may help you keep from asking the same small-talk questions over and over. Post the map somewhere obvious so you see it and remember who you can pray for and who you need to meet.
Most people, when they start, can only name every person in one or two of the eight neighboring houses. The first time we did this as a church around 5 years ago less than 1% of our congregation could name 4 of the 8. Today, after quizzing ourselves and challenging ourselves every few months, a significant majority of us know the names of all the people living near us.
That doesn’t mean we’re anywhere close to being perfect at loving our neighbors, but at least now if one of the people who actually live near us needs us, we’ll be able to call them by their first name. And when we read Jesus’ command to love our neighbor, our neighbor has a name and a face.