Are You the Listener You Think You Are?

A new book makes me question my listening skills.

Posted Jan 26, 2016

IVP Books
Source: IVP Books

Adam McHugh is one of the most thoughtful writers I know on the subject of introversion, and I say that despite the fact that a good half of his new book, The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction, is utterly meaningless to me.

McHugh, a Presbyterian minister whose previous book was Introverts in the Church, no longer works in the ministry, but his latest book is partially intended for use in Bible study, with chapters such as “Listening to God,” and “Listening to Scripture.”

That's not my thing.

But in the chapter “Listening to People in Pain,” McHugh also had the chutzpah to write, “Few things shut down a person in pain faster than quoting the Bible at them.” (He continued: “As I write that, I can hear the sirens of the Heresy Police surrounding my building.”)

And like me and my husband, McHugh has recently discovered the mindful pleasure of listening to music on vinyl. (“There is much debate in my family as to whether I’m a hipster or will soon be eating dinner at 4 p.m. and wearing chest-high pants,” he writes.) Rather than having music streaming mindlessly in the background of his life at all times, McHugh now puts on an album, puts up his feet, and really listens. 

"Listening to music on vinyl has taught me to put listening, in all spheres of life, at the center of my attention....That devoted time of listening is more valuable than hours of partial listening," he writes.

Huh. My husband and I have discussed the mindful quality of listening to music on vinyl, but I never connected that to the attention I pay other forms of listening.

McHugh freely admits that he is a reformed lousy listener. He was a good pretend listener and happy to dispense sage advice, but when genuine emotions entered the picture, he backed off, metaphorically.

“I considered a moment of pain, crisis or unfiltered emotion an opportunity to impart my insight, to rescue someone from their weakness, to correct distorted thinking, to evaporate the pain,” he writes. “I thought I was adding value to the conversation, but I was devaluing the contributions of the other person. Surprisingly, my strategy to fix people never worked. Not once.”

Um…ouch. I recognize myself in that description. I am guilty of spouting advice at the slightest provocation, although the alleged wisdom I wielded was psychology (lots of reading, years of therapy), not religion.

Like many introverts, I can be vain about my listening skills, but reading McHugh’s book forced me to reconsider my self-perception. It’s true that being more quiet than talkative means that I am more available to hear, but do I really listen? Or do I only half listen to the person talking while the rest of me is listening to my own brain chatter?

McHugh’s path to change started when he took a job as a chaplain at a hospice, where he had no choice but to listen—to really listen. “My patients had surprisingly little interest in any input I could provide for their situation,” he writes. “Apparently even my level of insight couldn’t fix the whole ‘dying problem.’”

The patients to whom he ministered and the mentor with whom he worked towards his professional (and ultimately personal) development opened McHugh’s eyes to his underused ears.

This was in 2003, and he’s been thinking about listening since then. This book was six years in the writing. 

McHugh writes with considerable charm and a great deal of wisdom and he gave me lots to think about, even though I skipped a number of chapters that didn’t speak to me.

I can’t quote Bible chapters and verses to you, though if that's your kind of thing there's plenty of it in The Listening LifeBut here are some other quotes from the book that spoke to me. 

  • Hearing is an act of the senses, but listening is an act of the will.
  • When parents say their children won't listen to them, they mean they won't obey them.
  • Imagine that there is a big arrow hovering over the space between two people engaged in a conversation. …as the listener in this conversation, your goal is to keep the arrow pointing at the other person for as long as possible.
  • A devoted listener knows that there is always more to learn about another person, no matter how long you’ve known them.
  • The best kind of listening is not one that receives information like a satellite dish; the best kind of listening is one that pierces, pushing toward the deepest, most basic truths. Sacred listening requires discernment over what to hold on to and what to let slip by.
  • Anxiety is the mortal enemy of listening to people in pain…We hear our lives and vulnerability in theirs.

The Listening Life was not written for me. But it had something to say to me anyway. So I listened. 

Check out my books, Introverts in Love: The Quiet Way to Happily Ever AfterThe Introverts Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World; 100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Goand The Yankee Chick's Survival Guide to Texas.

Note that anything you buy from Amazon by clicking through from this blog post will earn me a few cents. Or you can support your local independent bookstore; click here to find an indie bookstore near you.

Want to hang out with a bunch of cool introverts? Join us on my Facebook page. And follow me on Twitter or Instagram.