I recently sat down with a friend for lunch. As we were catching up, I began to feel like I was being interrogated rather than participating in a conversation. I’m not saying my friend was intrusively firing questions at me; she was friendly and cheerful as she asked me about the various situations I’ve been facing. She was even asking some good open-ended questions. However, I ended up leaving the conversation feeling like I hadn’t actually been heard.
I suspect most people understand what it takes to show interest in others – remember what is important to the other person and ask open-ended questions – yet we still fail to connect on the deeper levels that each person craves. How is it that my friend did everything she was supposed to do and still left me feeling unheard?
In an earlier blog post, What if you’re wrong?, I introduced the four levels of listening described in the book Real Influence by Mark Goulston and John Ullmen. The first two levels are generally negative and should not be used if at all possible – avoidance (distracted) listening and defensive (reactive) listening.
The third level, problem-solving listening, is very practical and often effective when facts and reason are paramount. However, according to Goulston and Ullmen, “Level 3 listening, especially when matters are complex or emotionally charged, leaves too much room for misunderstanding” (p. 93).
As I pondered the experience with my friend, I realized that this was the level that she had engaged in. Her questions had me focusing on the facts of my circumstances, not the deeper meaning I am deriving from them or how I feel about them. To an extent, it felt as though she were working her way down a list of topics she had to cover and was less interested in actually hearing what I had to say about the topics. I have to wonder how often I, too, take this approach in relationships – more often than is good, I suspect.
The highest level of listening, Level 4, is called “connective listening.” This is listening to understand and build rapport; your interest at this level is not even in solving a problem but to get underneath the surface of what the person is sharing. According to Goulston and Ullmen, “It’s listening without an agenda, because you’re not focused on responding or even on helping” (p. 94). Only after fully understanding the situation can solutions be explored.
Listening to another person at this level is a powerful way to build a relationship. Whether someone is simply sharing an experience or is venting, responding by asking for more information affirms the speaker and shows your concern for their feelings. It allows them to release all the negative emotions associated with the situation, and consequently they become better able to listen to you in return, further strengthening the relationship.
As I pondered which Biblical story to reference in relation to connective listening, I settled on one that may at first seem unorthodox – the case of King Solomon judging between two mothers who were both claiming a surviving child. We find the story of Solomon’s demonstration of wisdom in 1 Kings 3:16-28. Every teaching I have ever heard has pointed to Solomon’s divinely-sourced discernment, and I do believe God to be the source of wisdom and discernment.
However, when I read it again recently, I can see this is also a case of connective listening. While it isn’t explicitly stated in the Biblical narrative, I believe that the two women stated their cases in very different styles, and I believe that Solomon was able to hear not only the words of the two women but also their hearts. Can you imagine the tone of voice, the body language, the passion of the true mother when she opens her explanation by saying, “Oh, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house” (v. 17, emphasis mine)? Can you hear the coldness and bitterness in the voice of the false mother as she says, “No, the living child is mine, and the dead child is yours” (v. 22)?
I was further struck by verse 23, in which Solomon simply summarizes the two women’s argument: Then the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead’; and the other says, ‘No; but your son is dead, and my son is the living one.’” This very simple statement indicates that Solomon has practiced connective listening; he has heard what the two women said and understood the situation before making any moves to render a judgment that reveals what I suspect he understood from listening to them state their cases.
I believe that connective listening is a powerful tool. It may have the power to not only improve relationships but also to promote justice and mercy. How much suffering can we alleviate simply by listening with open ears and open hearts to those around us? Who can you practice connective listening with today?
Links and Resources:
Bible verses quoted from the English Standard Version (ESV)
YouTube Playlist of interview with Dr. Mark Goulston
Website for Real Influence: Persuade without Pushing and Gain without Giving In
Series of blog posts by Mark Goulston and John Ullmen based on the concepts in Real Influence: Persuade without Pushing and Gain without Giving In
72 Bible verses about listening