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Telling our side of the story and expressing our wants, feelings, and opinions is an important part of good communication between us and others. However, it is only half of what is needed in building good relationships on mutual trust, respect, and love. The other half is listening. Listening means making sure the other person is given the opportunity to tell her story, and making sure we put forth a genuine effort to understand what she is trying to say to us.

To understand often requires listening beyond the words themselves. We need to hear the messages conveyed in the choice of words, tone of voice, volume, body language, and timing of what the other person is saying. When we pay attention to all of these parts of the total message, we dramatically improve our ability to gain a clear understanding of the intent or purpose of what was said.

Good listening improves communication several ways. First, it helps us hear the real message in the words so we can better understand what the other person is trying to say. People are prone to speak what’s on their mind in nebulous, unclear, almost hidden ways. Good listening works through the vagueness to find the obscure (yet very important to the speaker) message. Second, good listening assures the speaker we have heard and understand the real message - which to the speaker means we finally understand her. We all want to be heard, especially when it comes to issues we value or think to be of importance. Knowing the other person has heard our side of the story or point of view reassures us the other person cares about us. Third, good listening can be a courteous means of helping the other person get her message across to us. When someone is afraid to speak forthrightly or doesn’t know how to say what is on her mind, good listening techniques can help her get her message out and know that we, the listener, have heard and understand what she is trying to say. Fourth, if we offend or antagonize someone by expressing our thoughts and feelings, good listening can help clarify their response and help us work toward a better understanding of each other.

When we lack, or fail to employ good listening skills, we are much more likely to misunderstand and misinterpret what others say. We are more likely to jump to wrong conclusions and make false assumptions. We are more likely to be preoccupied with our own wants or needs, focusing on how to respond rather than hearing what the other person is trying to tell us.

Though good listening means we are trying to accurately understand what the other person is saying, it does not mean we have to agree with what she is saying. We still have the privilege to disagree, make a final decision that is other than what is requested, or express feelings and thoughts that differ from hers. However, good listening and then proper communication helps us show respect even when disagreeing.

When someone wants to tell their story, express their concerns, or discuss important issues and we think there isn’t sufficient time, or we are too tired or preoccupied to effectively listen, we need to honestly say that to the other person. An example of what to say is, "Right now is not a good time for this conversation. I really want to hear what you have to say and then be able to discuss it with you. Would you be willing to talk this evening (or some other specific time)?"

A good way to get involved in listening is to paraphrase and repeat the message you received from what has been said. In repeating or paraphrasing the message received we verify what we think the other person is trying to tell us. This gives the speaker the opportunity to confirm that we have heard correctly, or to restate the desired message until we do hear correctly, or to try and say more directly what she wants to convey so that we both know what the real message is. Also, in heated discussions, paraphrasing gives everyone a chance to slow down and think clearly, rather than attacking or fleeing. Consider the following scriptures.

1. "My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for excessive, frustrated, and self-serving anger does not bring about the love and righteousness that God desires." (James 1:19,20) 

2. "A quick-tempered man does foolish things, and a crafty man is hated." (Proverbs 14:17) 

3. "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." (Proverbs 15:1)

4. "Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city." (Proverbs 16:32) 

5. "An angry man stirs up dissension, and a hot-tempered one commits many sins." (Proverbs 29:22)

Verifying through paraphrasing is an easy process. We can begin our paraphrase by saying:

        "What I just heard you say is . . ." 

        "Are you saying . . .?" 

        "The way you see it . . ." 

        "It seems to you that . . ." 

        "From your perspective . . ." 

When paraphrasing content, use your own words to describe the basic idea or message that was communicated. Some examples are: 

1. Then as far as you’re concerned, you still want me to give you money, even though you realize you misspent and wasted the money I gave you the last three times you requested it? 

2. Are you saying that you would like me to be more considerate when we’re together? 

3. In other words, you would still like me to cut the lawn, even though I have a heavier homework load and have joined the track team. 

4. What I am hearing you say is that my driving makes you uncomfortable and you’d like me to slow down. 

When paraphrasing feelings, try to use feeling words (i.e., sad, mad, happy, irritated, rejected, scared) to describe what you think the other person is trying to communicate. The following examples will help: 

          1. So you’re really angry over what I said. 

          2. It seems like you’re feeling rejected, as if I don’t like you any more.

          3. You really feel happy about what’s happened, don’t you? 

4. You sound irritated with me. 


Sometimes, the other person responds negatively to what we said, choosing silence and distance as their primary response. When this happens it is difficult to openly deal with the misunderstanding and repair the relationship. However, we can go to the other person and ask if they are willing to express their feelings and/or thoughts about what we said. If we will ask in a non-demanding, non-judgmental manner, we most often help the other person open up and express what they are feeling and thinking. Some examples are: 

          1. Would you be willing to respond to what I’ve said? 

          2. It would help me to know how you feel about what I’ve been saying. 

          3. What are your thoughts or feelings about what I’ve said?

Asking for the other person’s reactions to our communication relieves the pressure of assuming or wondering what their response really is. It also shows them that we are open and interested in hearing what they have to say. This helps others feel loved and respected. 

Sometimes, a negative response means we have been misunderstood. There are usually identifiable reasons for this breakdown in communication. Sometimes we do not clearly say what we are wanting to say. Sometimes others hear us through their predetermined view of who we are, which distorts for them what we are actually saying. Sometimes people hear our requests as demands, our suggestions as personal criticism, or our disagreement as personal disrespect. It helps to ask what the other person is hearing us say. For example: 

1. I’ve been trying to tell you something, what have you been hearing me say? 

2. I’ve been talking for awhile; what do you think I am trying to tell you? 

3. What is the basic message you have heard from what I have been saying? 

When we’ve been misunderstood and discover it, we can clarify what we meant to say. An example is: "I'm sorry it sounded like I was saying your idea was no good. Actually I appreciated it and used part of it to solve the problem. It was just the one aspect of your idea that I disagreed with." 

Asking the other person to paraphrase what they heard is an excellent way to clear up misunderstandings. But, if we wish to improve our communication skills, learning what others are hearing can expose our own peculiar forms of communication, which in turn gives us the possibility to change those forms which hurt our communication efforts.

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Revised 2020