Obstacles To Listening

by Christine Sine

2008 Botanic Garden fwby Lynne Baab

Some of the same obstacles that make it challenging to listen to people also make it hard to listen to God. I learned this insight a few years ago when I did some research about listening.

I interviewed 63 ministers and congregational leaders in the US and the UK about listening. In my interviews, I asked about listening within congregations, listening to the wider community, listening to God and obstacles to listening. I heard lots of great stories (and the stories shaped my book, The Power of Listening, reviewed here on Godspace.) I was quite surprised that most of my interviewees became most animated when they talked about obstacles to listening.

They talked about challenges to listening that come from external sources: noisy rooms and people who talk too fast or too softly. Several interviewees said that they knew individuals who had never been listened to, so they had no models for how to listen well. These obstacles relate to listening to God just as much as listening to people. What’s the equivalent of noisy rooms and voices that are hard to hear when we think about listening to God? Too much activity, bustle and noise – these definitely impede our ability to hear God. Christians can also lack models for listening to God because it seems like a weird or unconventional activity.

My interviewees also talked a lot about obstacles to listening that come from within. I want to lay out three of the inner obstacles they talked about and show how those obstacles relate to listening to God as well as listening to people:

1. Preoccupation with the to-do list or what’s next on the schedule. Our swirling thoughts about activities and what we have to do next can keep us from slowing down to pay attention to the person in front of us, and they also prevent us from paying attention to God’s still small voice.

2. Concern about what we’re going to say next or that we will be required to do something we don’t want to do in response to what we’re hearing. Our uneasiness about we will need to do next impedes listening to people. Will we be able to respond appropriately to what we’re hearing, whether that’s the words we say next or the action we might be required to take? This same kind of fear blocks our ability to hear God. Will God demand of me something I don’t want to do?

3. Fear of silence. Quite a few of my interviewees said that so many people are afraid of silence, or are at the least quite uncomfortable with it. We have habituated ourselves into a constant stream of noise: music, videos, TV, movies, video games, etc. Smart phones enable us to avoid silence entirely if we want to. Silence when talking with others is essential from time to time in order to let people reflect and dig deep into their thoughts. Many people feel very uneasy if silence falls in conversations, so they rush to fill the silent space with words. If we are used to filling silence in conversations with words, we are likely to do the same in prayer.

My interviewees mentioned other inner obstacles as well. Overcoming these obstacles, both in conversations with people and with God, requires self-awareness and intentionality. “Be still and know that I am God,” the psalmist recommends (Psalm 46:10). Being still requires a desire to do so, as well as lots of practice. It doesn’t feel natural at first. This blog gives many practical ideas about how to learn to be still and listen to God.

Here’s my practical idea: I want to encourage you to think about your biggest obstacles to listening to people, and then reflect on the ways those same obstacles influence your ability to listen to God.

Today’s post is part of our series on listening.

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