Five Types of Listening

In a deleted scene from Tarantino’s cult classic, Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman’s character asks John Travolta a searching question, “In conversation, do you listen, or wait to talk?” Travolta pauses, then replies, “I have to admit that I wait to talk, but I’m trying harder to listen.”

Pulp Fiction

Travolta’s character in the movie isn’t the sharpest tack in the box, but here he speaks wisely, and here he speaks for many of us. We struggle to listen. We don’t hear the end of other people’s sentences. We are very often eager to take the floor. Our thoughts and responses to other people’s thoughts and reflections, whether voiced or not, crowd out our capacity to really hear what the other person is saying.

The reality of this came home to me as a pastor, tasked with teaching people how to pray for other people. If you think about it, praying for someone, aloud, in their presence, isn’t the most natural of tasks. What do you say? How much do you say? How do you know when you’re done? And how are we supposed to speak to God for another person? But beneath these difficulties lies the problem of listening, and by problem I mean that we aren’t by nature very good listeners. We are good at judgment, and jumping to conclusions, and above all at choosing our responses based on words that make us feel better.

Let me give some examples. Perhaps we hear someone speak about a problem they are having at work or home, and our first impulse may be to address the problem, to fix the issue. But beneath a desire to fix things is very often an unsettling anxiety. If I’m honest, your story makes me anxious, and my proposed solution is less about your problem than it is about my personal anxiety. I am speaking to make myself feel better. Alternatively, we hear someone speaking about an issue they are dealing with—bad financial planning, or poor relational choices. What creeps into our minds in those moments is very often a narrative of judgment. “That was stupid,” we think. “If you’d done things another way you wouldn’t be in this situation, you know.” “You always get into these kinds of problems. Don’t you think you could learn your lesson by now?” These judgments similarly cloud our capacity to hear what is really going on the person’s life. They fill up the backlog of things we are waiting to say. And while we’re waiting, we’re not listening very well anymore.

Woman with her fingers in her ears

If we’re going to be better listeners, we’ve got to practice listening. Toward that end, today, I want to attempt to briefly outline five different types of listening. We’ll use questions to frame each of the types of listening, partially because asking questions is a great way to show that we’re listening. These five questions are designed to get us past our judgments, and to help us master our anxieties. Also, while the first three types apply to everyone, the final two are specific to Christians.

#1. What’s going on in you? This is the first area of listening. When someone comes to you and shares a concern, or tells a story about their life, saturating their narrative is a state of being, an often confused and intermingled set of feelings, emotions, and responses. A first task in listening well is listening to the person’s heart, to the story they, perhaps, aren’t articulating in their words. The person may know exactly how he or she feels, or the person may not know at all. But we can work to be attentive to the emotional subtext of their story. This should give us some idea of what’s going on inside the person speaking.

Black Lives Matter_Girl

#2. Where are you coming from? This is the second area of listening. Each person who tells you a story comes from somewhere. The story is rooted in a larger situation, with other actors and characters impacting the narrative, influencing the speaker’s responses and perception of events. A significant part of listening is listening to this where aspect of the person. Good listening involves an attempt to place the person’s story in a helpful and accurate context.

Pride parade portrait

#3. What is it you want? This is the third area of listening. Each person who discloses a narrative to you also wants things. The desire may be as simple as to offload the story, or to commiserate with a friendly ear. The person may want an honest resolution to the situation, or he or she may want a dishonest resolution! Independent of the merit of the particular desire, the person who speaks holds in his or her heart a goal, a purpose, masked or bald, which influences who they are and what’s going on in their lives at this time. We’ve got to attend to this desire.

Trump Supporter

#4. What is the Lord saying to this person right now? Here—and obviously this presumes a Christian conversation—we can prompt the person to speak about how God is speaking to them in their situation. We should always assume, in any conversation, that God is at work as a third party, nudging, whispering, shouting, drawing, blocking—doing the conversational things that God does through all of us, have we the ears to hear.

Immigrant Protestor

#5. What is the Lord saying to me in all this? This final aspect of listening is crucial. It runs parallel to all of the other kinds of listening we do, because inasmuch as He is speaking and nudging the person we are listening to, He is also speaking and nudging us as we attend to the goings on of the person’s, the nature of this individual’s situation, and the expressed or unexpressed desires implicit in the narrative. Here the listening ear turns from the words the person speaks to a spiritual subtext, so that when we attend to the voice of the Lord, and when we learn the sound of His voice, He becomes the one who guides our attention to what matters, and when we trust Him we release to His care the anxieties that make us bad listeners in the first place.

Vietnam War

I want to make a few observations about listening in this way. The first is that none of these forms of listening require any judgment on your part, whatsoever. When you are listening to a person’s heart, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening to the history of their story, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening to their desires, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening alongside them for the voice of the Lord, you aren’t judging them. To listen well almost never means agreeing with the person to whom you listen—it is more a journey of mutual discovery. You get to find out what they think and feel, and, very often, they also get to discover what it is that they think and feel. It is in this sense that listening is a validating activity. Validation is not to be confused with agreement. If I validate you, and I am affirming that you have communicated to me what you wanted, that I understand your emotions, your story, your desires. To listen in this way requires me to lay aside my control of the conversation, or, at least, my anxious control. I don’t have to win. I don’t have to get in the last word. I don’t have to change your mind. The best we might achieve is that you get to clearly state your mind.

You may note that I’ve chosen somewhat provocative examples for the images of each of these types of listening. I’ve chosen them, specifically, because I feel that they represent places where we’ve become especially bad listeners, places where our judgments and anxieties very often crowd out the real person who is trying to communicate something personal to us. It’s worth reflecting on those situations and mentally applying these principles of listening to them, to see what happens.

None of this means that we don’t speak. It also doesn’t mean that, sometimes, will won’t be required to offer judgments. There will be moments when a person needs to hear the words, “That was a stupid choice.” But this will never be before we’ve performed the difficult task of listening well. And altogether this means that listening, quite simply, is both a taxing and rewarding activity. It is hard work. It takes a great deal of energy, emotionally and physically. But when we succeed, we bless both the speaker and ourselves. If we become skilled, we are likely to grow in empathy. If we are obedient, then we might begin to hear more from God Himself.

Vietnam’s Christians

Some time ago I attended a conference of Vietnamese Christians. Surveying the book table my eye was drawn (perhaps because it was the only book in English!) to one volume in particular—Reg Reimer’s Vietnam’s Christians: A Century of Growth in Adversity (William Carey Library, 2011). As a pastor who works with a group of mostly ethnic Vietnamese, I felt that this study might be an important ministerial asset. But more than the glimpse I was given into the history of my congregation, I was also given a vision of the Church universal. And it is that vision which makes Reimer’s book worth reading.

The book opens with a remarkable statistic: “In the thirty-five years since a divided Vietnam was united under communism in 1975, the number of evangelical believers has grown from some 160,000 to 1.4 million—nearly 900%!” Reimer’s book seeks to account, in providing a short history of the Church in Vietnam, for this nine-fold growth. And while Reimer makes note of the Roman Catholic arrival in 1615, the primary focus of his study is the Protestant Church over the past 100 years. In fact, the publishing of his book coincides with the 100 year anniversary of the arrival of the first Protestant Missionary, Robert Jaffray, in 1911.

The Church has always struggled to gain traction in Vietnam for a variety of reasons, and the choice to become a follower of Jesus has often had radical consequences. For example, in Vietnam choosing Christianity meant a choice against double tradition—that of both the living and the dead. It is a choice against the living because to choose Christ could mean a break with a tightly knit family structure; against the dead because choosing Christianity meant a break with traditional ancestor worship. And these twin networks stack the odds against the Church—there are a host of native reasons to resist making a choice for Christ. Add to this the opposition of the government, and the growth of the Church in Vietnam appears even more remarkable.

Communist governments view loyalty to a religion as a threat to the state, and therefore work actively to inhibit the growth of the Church through a variety of means. In Vietnam the government actively encourages citizens to embrace their traditional animism as a way to reinforce both the traditional family and ancestor worship structures. More aggressively, the government will confiscate Church and personal property, as well as send ministry leaders to prison for what it views as opposition to the government. In the mountain regions, where Vietnam’s native people live, converts are chased out of their villages and left destitute. More subtly, bureaucracy is also used to cripple the Church—churches are allowed to operate freely if they are registered, but the policy on registration requires a congregation to have been in ten years of consistent operation to receive government recognition—in other words, ten years of illegal operation before they will be acknowledged. In all, the government actively works toward the progressive obsolescence of the Church. Reimer writes, “in practice communism helps make sure that churches are useless by making it impossible for them to minister to society” (58)—through a host of means they cripple the Church’s ability to be the Church.

A further problem that the Church faces is confusion. In many cases the officially recognized church bodies have been co-opted by the government, and believers must question whether their Church is in fact a tool of the state. In response to all these persecutions, and in the absence of reliable, visible church structures, the Church in Vietnam has gone underground. It is in this House Church movement that Vietnamese Christianity has swelled over the past 35 years.

Reimer’s book is not composed only of data, he also documents numerous stories of the actual believers in Vietnam, and these are the most rewarding parts of the book. We read about Phan Thi Kim Phuc, famous for her photograph as “the napalm girl,” who converted to Christianity. We read personal stories about the Hmong persecution and migration, about ministers who go to prison, and about and a host of other people. If I have one complaint about the book, it is that I’m confident there are many more stories to tell and I wanted to hear more of them.

Reimer’s book offers an important view into the cultural, traditional, historical, and religious history of Vietnam, and is worth reading whether or not you have a particular interest in Vietnamese Christianity. Because while Vietnam’s official policy is of religious freedom, Reimer’s book reminds us that our world is not free, and that the civil overtures of ‘religious freedom’ are often thin deceptions. When we read a book like this, we challenge ourselves—especially when we live in the free west—with the truth that the Church, as the Body of Christ, is a single organism. And therefore what happens in Vietnam impacts every believer in the world.