The Habit of Listening

Excerpt from Kingdom Culture: Uncovering the Heart of What Empowers Teams by Bruce Lengeman, Copyright 2017 | Published with permission from the author.

Three Essential Habits That Give Life to the Culture of Heart
One: The Habit of Listening, (or Combating Chronic Flap-Jaw Syndrome)

Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, is a timeless classic. Much of it is both simple and profound at the same time. I am just one of the countless multitudes who was influenced by this book. I read just two random pages again last night and was re-influenced. But one of the chapters in Dale’s book that helped me the most was the one titled, Do This and You’ll Be Welcome Anywhere. It was about being interested in others as a way of life; it was about listening to others—their stories, their endeavors, their heart. Life doesn’t work when our goal is trying to get people interested in us: “Friends, real friends,” Dale writes, “are not made that way” (pg. 56 e-version).

Ruthie and I were discussing our journey to find mentors to walk alongside us in our Kingdom work. We reflected back over a couple of men we thought could walk with us through life, but all they wanted to do was teach us. Mentorships such as that don’t last long. But then there were those who did teach us, but not until after they listened to us and heard our hearts.

For several years Ruthie and I were teachers at a parent-teen seminar. In one session I would open by showing the audience a piece of paper folded and cut into a cone shape. Then I would ask the audience to tell me what it was. Of course, only I knew the answer. I got a variety of answers: ice cream cone, funnel, dunce hat, party hat, orange traffic cone, a cake-decorating icing cone, Hershey kiss, unicorn horn, space craft. The worst answer was megaphone. Then I gave the correct answer: an ear trumpet—a device for listening—and I would proceed with my lesson on Hearing Other’s Hearts.

Ruthie and I continue to be stunned by how many leaders we meet or chat with who are into their own agendas, their own opinions and ideas, and give testimony of themselves—even if it seems to be in the name of God—and don’t even think to show value, care or interest in our hearts and lives. Behind this I sense two things: one, that some of them are overconfident and actually think they deserve to talk more than others because what they say is more valuable than what others say. Two is that they feel inadequate, and their self-promotion is a cover for their own inadequacy.

The Tale of Two Pastors

Lonnie came to town the same time as me. We were both new pastors with similar doctrine and approach, so we decided to chat over chow every now and then. The first time we chatted, I saw Lonnie’s passion. He could crank out profound insights like Hershey’s cranks out kisses. I excused his conversation domination as excitement for God. Next time my assistant came with me to chat and chow. He, too, noticed something about Lonnie: Hook a generator to that boy’s tongue and we could’ve lit the whole city. To say we were overwhelmed was an understatement. This happened the next time—and the social get-together—and the last time. We soon realized that though Lonnie loved the Lord, he didn’t care about our hearts, and probably was that way with his congregation, too. His agenda was to share his heart—period.

Conversation went like this: Lonnie would share 10 minutes—suddenly a pause—I would quickly inject some of my own profound comments attempting to dialogue with what he was saying, but his listening span was less than thirty seconds before he would sabotage the dialogue and yank it back in his court. I would say the same thing every time we got together: uh huh, yeah, okay, yes, uh huh, and when someone else talked, he would interrupt.

The relationship didn’t last long. Lonnie was indeed a teacher, but who enjoys being taught all the time!

Bill was on the south pole, if Lonnie was on the north. When I moved to small-town Iowa, Grace, a woman I had never met, heard about us and came to our home, and told me (not asked) that she was taking me to Bill’s church, about an hour away. Ruthie and I went with Grace. While standing in the back of the church pre-service, Bill, a massive, good-looking, 6’9” monstrosity, saw me, introduced himself to me, and then asked what I do for a living. I told him I am a teacher, counselor, writer, blah, blah, blah. He immediately asked me to join him for chat and chow Tuesday morning.

Oh right! I thought. Good pastor—merchandise me from the beginning. Get me to go to his church and then use me to build his own agenda. Hey, Buddie, I’ve been around. I know the games, the strategies, the corrupt motives. But I’ll go along with it and see what happens. “Sure, I’ll meet you. What time and where?”

I met Bill at Perkins for breakfast. He paid my bill. He never talked to me about coming to his church—not that time. Never did. We became friends. I came back to his church every now and then, but not regularly. When I met with Bill, my heart was always his focus. He always listened. Yeah, he told about his, but always seemed more concerned about mine, and all the other people that in the next few years met together with us. Bill had died to churchy games and personal-platform building long before I had met him. It freed him to go the heart of those God put in his path. You couldn’t give surface answers to Bill when he asked, How ya doin’? He would go deep and deeper till he got the truth and then found some way to affirm or encourage you. It was hard to out-listen Bill.

Bill is a man of great authority, but along the way he took some grief because he didn’t go along with all the religious antics that certain Christians promote. He knew that God is all about the heart and about relationship. I don’t live in Iowa any more. I don’t talk to Bill much, but every time I do, I know he still cares.

Time and again Ruthie and I meet with mature believers and leaders and we leave stunned how much people can be into their own agenda. We don’t judge, though we often sorrow, for when we point the finger there are always three fingers pointing back at us, not condemning us, but reminding us that it is so often better to listen than to talk. I am always reminded of the quote by Theodore Roosevelt: Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.

Chronic Flap-Jaw Syndrome

Over-talking is a plague! Many people can talk a blue streak in conversation and never notice that they failed to create dialogue, failed to draw the other in with questions, or if they asked, they didn’t listen to the full response. There are people I have challenged Ruthie to avoid simply because they will abuse her ear, and are oblivious to their own motor-mouth. They hate to be interrupted, but they perpetually interrupt others.

People who understand heart, understand the art of listening.

Over-talking is one of the most hard-to-see blind spots in people. I fell asleep on someone once and I don’t think he even noticed. Ruthie often shares her own victory from over-active-tongue disease. Honestly, it didn’t come easy. It was years into our marriage before we crossed this pain line. I never minded Ruthie’s talking when Ruthie was talking to me, but I got to a point that I couldn’t go on with the times she would dominate me in social settings and in counseling. When I would address it, Ruthie was often defensive because she felt that I was shutting her down, and she would then overreact and say, Well, then, I just won’t talk. We would get through it and she would sincerely ask for eyes to see, but it was a stronghold and a blind spot that took many confrontations. At times she would ask me why I was so quiet when we were with friends, and I would say, Because you don’t pause long enough for me to get a word in edgewise, you comment on what others say faster than a speeding bullet, you interrupt my thought process when I am not finished. Anything else? This did not make Ruthie feel like she does when she is eating coffee-mocha gelato, but she sought God on it, begged me to continue to point out her blind spot, and adopted a more low-profile posture for a while when we were with others.

As time went on, God went to the root in Ruthie’s heart, and pulled out lies that were driving her talkiness. One was that she felt responsible for other’s social enjoyment, and a few other lies. Suddenly she began noticing other people that unblessed others with the same verbal motor. She would ask, Was I that bad! God forbid!

Regularly Ruthie, who now for many years majorly understands how listening works in a culture of honor, will thank me for helping her overcome this habit, and she often points out to others what they are doing when she sees them verbally shutting down their spouse or friends.

My Journey

I too had a problem with listening, different from Ruthie’s, and I still have a long way to go before I have mastered the art of listening, but it is always a major priority in my life to master it. My problem was that I am a processor. Often when people were talking with me, I would detach to process what they were saying, without even knowing I detached. I have worked hard to overcome this reaction and learn to fully concentrate on what people are saying to me without detaching. Much of this came from my reaction growing up to nobody listening to me or ever pursuing my heart. It took Ruthie many times addressing this issue to me before I was able to catch it and stop the processing process.

I first learned about the importance and power of listening several decades ago when I read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. I have had several of my children read the book. I have told all of them at one point or another, that if you want to be an influencer, prepare to always listen more than you talk. Listeners make the culture of honor glisten, because most of the time, listeners are listeners because they esteem others more important than themselves as a habit.

When you are enjoying relationship with another—your spouse, your friend, at a team meeting, in a group social setting, ask questions that engage the other one or ones to express their ideas, thoughts, feelings, opinions, observations, and then allow them to finish their thoughts before jumping in with the million comments that are trying to bust out of your mind through your tongue. Temperance and restraint are disciplines when it comes to the tongue. James 3:3-9 is dedicated to bridling the tongue. Read a few verses from this chapter:

Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison (3:5-8).

We understand through this passage that mastering the tongue is a characteristic of the mature.

Over-talking is a scourge in any kind of relationship.

Kingdom Culture: Uncovering the Heart of What Empowers Teams is available on