In order to listen effectively you have to listen at two levels. You listen to what is being said and you listen to what is not being said. There are two reasons you want to do this.
- You want the person who is talking to you to experience your care through active listening.
- You want to help the person by listening beyond what is being said: you want to hear their presuppositions, motives, and thoughts (Hebrews 4:12-13).
Your hope is to discern what the LORD discerns (John 2:24-25) and to perceive what the LORD perceives (Hebrews 4:12-13). This is why they come to you for advice.
They not only want you to tell them what they do not know, but they want you to give them a scripted and practical plan that will lead them through their situational difficulties. This means you must think more deeply and broadly than the person who is talking to you.
You must know more about their problem than they do. They will never be able to tell you all about their problems. I suppose if they could tell you the real problems, they would not need your advice.
Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety. – Proverbs 11:14 (ESV)
When they come to you, they tell you what has been going on in their world. They seek help for what has been happening in their day-to-day lives. The behaviors and drama they lay out for you is always secondary and symptomatic to the fundamental and foundational problems of their lives.
This is hugely important for us, as disciplers, to understand. We want to be effective friends to our friends and in order to be this kind of friend, we must learn how to listen on two levels. Let me illustrate.
Jamie has been married to Brad for seven years. Their marriage has been in the toilet for most of those years. Brad is a passive husband and Jamie has an expectation of what Brad should be as a husband.
As you might imagine from this brief descriptor, their marriage is bound for hard times. Jamie is opinionated and generally views herself as right and Brad does not know how to lead her. Because of this, he takes a passive role in the marriage.
He acts out his anger through silence and she acts out her anger by speaking her mind. It is two people with the same sin pattern, only acted out in different ways. Both of them are angry and feel justified in their sin. They end up in counseling.
When they came to counseling, Jamie did most of the talking. Actually, what she did would be better described as venting. She gave me a long list of how Brad has failed as a husband. If the truth be told, she was mostly right.
Occasionally, Brad would chime in to let me know how Jamie has been a self-righteous nag. At the end of our time together, I had a clear picture of Brad’s badness–according to Jamie. I also had a clear picture of Jamie’s badness–according to Brad.
There was no question they could clearly articulate the other person’s sin. They told me story after story after story after story after story–ad nausea. As they were talking, I was actively and intentionally listening to them.
Listening on two levels
I wanted to clearly understand what they were saying. Interestingly, what they did not realize was how I was listening to them and on what level I was listening. I was actively listening to what they were saying and I was also listening to what they were not saying. This is two level listening.
If I only listened to what they were saying on the behavioral level, I would have been as lost and hopeless as they were. I would have become their referee or negotiator, trying to figure out how two people could tell the same story so differently.
Sorting out their truth claims would be like a dog chasing his tail, which would not serve them. Even if I could find the truth in their competing stories, it would mean one was right and the other was wrong. That is not a good place for either one of them to be–unless being right was all that mattered.
Sometimes winning is all some couples care about accomplishing. They have a short-sighted vision of marriage. If winning an argument is all that matters, then the marriage is destined for continual dysfunction and possible divorce.
It is like two beggars squabbling over the seven cents they found on the sidewalk. They cannot come to an agreement on who gets four or who gets three. Both of them are selfish and self-seeking. Neither one has a higher vision than the seven pennies before them.
Brad and Jamie were not seeking God. They were seeking self-vindication because they were legitimately hurt and saw themselves deserving something more than what they were receiving from each other.
Bringing the Gospel in focus
This is what happens with any married couple that forgets the Gospel. Forgetting we deserve hell is perilous for the mind and the marriage. Jamie and Brad forgot where God found them. It is like spoiled rich kids, who have been given everything they could ever need, but they still want more.
While they were venting, I was thinking about a more Gospel-centered world view, hoping I could bring the Gospel to fruition in their hearts. I was thinking beyond sorting out their stories. Their stories were symptomatic, not causal. While I wanted them to be heard, I was more interested in them being helped.
The main thing their stories told me was their lack of trust in God. They were believers who functioned as atheists. Their frustration and fear was a clear testimony of how God was not controlling their hearts in their situational difficulty.
Jamie was angry at Brad and he was angry at her. In James we know the core of this kind of problem. He says the angry person is mad because he is not getting what he wants. This makes him an idolater. This is why Brad uses anger, albeit the silent treatment, as a means to get his desires satisfied (James 4:1-3).
Helping the sinning victim
Brad and Jamie were choosing godless means to satisfy their desires. Therefore, they vented story after story in order to get me on each other’s side–to get me to see it the “right” way.
They assumed by telling me how bad the other person was I would be convinced one was right and the other was wrong. Their posturing revealed more about their hearts than their rightness.
Their hearts revealed bitterness, anger, fear, revenge, and a lack of trust in God. They would probably be surprised to know these things–at least initially. This is where the counselor must be careful.
People who are sinfully venting about how bad they have been treated are not ready to see their sinful hearts. This is the dilemma of the sinful-victim, a conundrum to be sure. Typically we are all guilty, to some degree, in our relationships.
While I could not change either one of them, my hope was to care for them so they could change–beginning in their hearts. This is one of the reasons I wanted to listen to their stories. I wanted to empathize, listen, and understand.
The main goal was to be clear in what was being said, while knowing how I would not be serving either one of them if I did not bring Gospel-clarity to everything that was being said, meaning at both levels.
This kind of listening and responding takes courage. Too often it is one of the missing pieces in the discipleship process. A person will listen to the stories and empathize, but not move the person any closer to the Savior by rooting out the heart idolatries.
The hurting person may feel heard, but they will not be helped, because their role in the demise of the relationship was not addressed. Sometimes the sinning-victim will say they have been helped because the counselor merely listened.
They are correct to a degree, but if all they wanted was a listening ear, then they have short-changed themselves on all God could do in their lives. Each situational difficulty is an opportunity to change and grow. The careful discipler wants to listen and respond to both levels of a person’s life.
The infographic in this article describes how to listen at two levels. This graphic is a rendition from a counseling situation. I sat and listened to a friend tell me several stories about what was wrong in his marriage.
I did not refute anything he said. As far as I was concerned, he was telling the truth. His wife had done some horrible things to him and she was proceeding to drag his name, the church’s name, and God’s name through the mud.
As I was listening to him, I was asking the LORD how could I help him. He was not only telling me what was wrong in his marriage, but he was venting too.
I continued to ask him questions, not to learn more information about his relationship with his wife, but to discern the theological breakdown in his heart. The more my friend talked, the more I was learning the real person (Matthew 12:34).
Biblically labeling what you’re hearing
His words allowed me to attach biblical labels to the things he was saying. (Look at the heart in the graphic.) It was clear by his attitude, words, venting, stories, and frustration how he was not under the control of the LORD.
The primary things he was saying from his heart were along the lines of anger, fear, and unbelief. His stories told me he was not getting what he wanted and he was frustrated (angry) about it. James called this the war within (James 4:2).
A warfare was going on inside of him and it was incumbent upon me to draw attention to it. To merely listen at a surface level would not help him. I began to address his heart, specifically his anger. Sinful anger is always associated with fear.
“I’m afraid I’m not going to get my way in this marriage, so I’m angry about it.” – Brad’s heart
Anger is a manipulative tactic of the fearful person to regain control of his life or to get his way. This is another way of saying my friend was not trusting God. He was functioning in unbelief.
Brad’s functional god was his wife. She had full control of him. Whenever you become sinfully angry at another person, the person you are angry with owns you. They control you because they have something you want.
Jamie was not giving him what he craved and he was mad about it. He had an un-cooperating god on his hands and he was venting. If he rested in the LORD alone, he would not be venting; the drama would be different. He would be trusting.
God is greater than your troubles
Even the way he shared his story would be markedly different if God was truly ruling his heart. Whoever or whatever rules you will control the words you choose to describe your life. He was not acting as a man under the control of God Almighty. His word choices were making this clear.
- God has promised to take care of us (Psalm 55:22).
- He has assured us how no person is greater than Him (John 10:29).
- He said He would complete in us what He began in us (Philippians 1:6).
- He appealed to us not to worry about what people can do to us, but to trust Him (Matthew 10:28).
- He has given us the promise of victory and He has appealed to us not to fear or doubt His active goodness in our lives (Matthew 6:25-34; Luke 11:11-13).
- We have ultimate victory through Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Corinthians 15:57).
My friend lost his God-ward focus. He was venting about all that was wrong in his marriage, while not fully trusting in the One who is greater than all. Can you see how important it is to listen at two levels? By all means, let your friends share their stories (drama) with you.
But lend your ear to how they share their stories and what they are really saying about their real selves so you can reorient their minds to the story God is writing in their lives. You want to empathize with them, but your main goal is to lead them to functional heart change.