The Powerful Gift of Three-Way Listening

This article was written by the Rev. Dr. David M. Oliver. You can learn more about his ministry at his website (http://livingh2oministries.com/).

For more than forty years, the Spirit of God has been cultivating in me the powerful gift of three way listening. I describe the process and give tools to help people begin to develop this gift in their own life and work.

As a pastor, spiritual director and leadership coach, three-way listening is a primary tool I employ in helping others. Three-way listening has also been empowering to me personally and I trust that it will be so for you.

The Bible is filled with stories and experiences of those who listened to God and God’s messengers.

1 Samuel 3:9-21 is the familiar story of God speaking to Samuel when he was in the Temple in Israel. The Lord took the initiative to speak to Samuel. At first Samuel did not understand it was the Lord who was calling him. He thought it was his mentor, Eli. After three attempts by God to communicate directly with Samuel, Eli finally understood that the boy was having a spiritual experience and that God was trying to communicate with him. Eli instructed Samuel to say the next time, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” He did just that when the Lord came again and called him by name, “Samuel! Samuel!”

The fact that the Lord spoke his name twice is called a double vocative in biblical interpretation. The double vocative is used so that a person will carefully notice of what follows and listen attentively.

Scripture accounts where the double vocative is used include God’s call to Moses in Exodus (3:4). This was the start of Moses taking on the mantle of leadership to lead the Hebrews out of slavery. Jesus’ presenting himself to Saul, the persecutor Christians, was the pivotal event which turned Saul into the Apostle Paul. Not only was his name changed, but the chief persecutor of the church became the chief ambassador for Christ to the non-Jewish nations. You can read about Jesus calling to Saul using the double vocative in Acts 9:4.

Other examples of God speaking in various ways include the story of the virgin Mary having an encounter with the angel Gabriel who was sent from God with the call to become the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:26ff).

The Lord God spoke to John the Baptist and those gathered watching the baptism of Jesus. As Jesus came up out of the water, the Spirit of God descended upon him like a dove and alighted on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17).

All of the prophets engaged in dialogue with God, dialogue with the people of God and sought to be attentive to their own hearts.

The Psalms are a series of songs and prayers in which dialogue and communion occur between God, others and the psalm writer.

These are just a few examples which demonstrate in large and small ways three way listening is thoroughly biblical and absolutely normative for the Christian life. The fact that it is not as normative in our day does not negate its importance. If fact, I submit that we have neglected this gift and need to reclaim a lost and forgotten tradition which is exemplified in Scripture as vital and normative for men and women of God.

The Dynamic Process of Three-Way Listening

Listening is a learned skill. It involves more than hearing the sound of another’s voice or learning to listen for God’s ways of speaking. Listening is an outward, upward, inward process.

Listening outwardly:

Listening outwardly involves focused attention on the other person who is communicating. In the art of listening, we must focus on what is said as well as what is not said. We pay attention to the words of the person and to their non-verbal communication. We notice the energy with which they are speaking, the body language, emotions, the tone of voice, and the flow of the conversation. We are attentive to the themes in what is being shared and we listen for connections with information previously shared.

If a person comes to me and is upset, I want to hear what they have to say. I seek to understand. I will periodically do active listening and reframe what they are saying. Having done this, I ask the person if I have understood them clearly.

I will also be attentive to and ask questions about the feelings the person is expressing. I will ask them about what it is like for them to feel this way.

The goal is to have a deep awareness and sensitivity to what the person is saying, feeling and thinking. This is key to accurate empathy, respect and authentic, empowering relationships.

In the realm of leadership coaching, and many other disciplines, listening is an essential practice which must be cultivated to a high art. The coach listens for several things:

  • Precise questions which need to be asked and which build on what is being said (Read more about this below.)
  • Reminders to suspend judgment (You are there to help the person, not argue with their beliefs.)
  • Listening for themes in the conversation
  • Listen for what is actually being said.
  • Listen for meaning behind what is being said.
  • Listen to the relationship itself:
    • what is being shared and its connection with things shared in the past
    • trends that can be discerned based on what has been shared
    • Notice when a new thought or new direction is pursued.
    • Note the client’s energy level, pace of conversation; mood; and other factors that ‘go beyond words.’

The following are Cardinal Rules of Listening:

  1. Focus — give undivided attention
  2. Summarize — mirror back what has been said
  3. Invite — ask for more
  4. Unpack — exhaust the speaker’s resources before sharing anything yourself.
  5. Clarify — check your assumptions, i.e., “Here’s what I’m hearing you say so far…Is that accurate?”

One of the significant tools to learn is how to ask powerful questions. These questions are not primarily designed to elicit information for the one asking the question. Powerful questions, empower deeper thinking and insight for the person responding to the question. In other words, powerful questions serve the one answering as much or more than the one asking the question.

Powerful questions are ones that–

  1. reveal the information needed for maximum benefit to the client and the relationship
  2. reflect active listening and an understanding of the other person’s perspective
  3. evoke discovery, insight, commitment or action (e.g., those that challenge the person’s assumptions leading to fresh insight and creative action)
  4. create greater clarity, possibility and new learning; are open-ended
  5. move people towards what they desire

Many more things could be incorporated into this description of Listening Outwardly. For the purposes of this paper, my goal is to point toward the necessity of this skill when engaging others at a deep level. Books and courses on listening are available for both professionals and nonprofessionals. If this is an area in which you desire to grow, the investment will be a blessing to you and to others with whom you engage.

Listening Upwardly:

Listening upwardly involves being centered in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It necessitates learning to be in attunement with the living God who is communicating constantly. I often say, “God has something to say to you today.” When God seems silent, the issue is not usually God’s silence but our lack of knowledge, attention to and attunement with what God is communicating.

Every radio has a control which allows it to dial into and pick up the signal of a broadcasting station. In the same manner, God has given every human being the ability to attune to what God is saying, to what God is ‘broadcasting.’

God’s primary means and record of communication is the Holy Scriptures. The following are just three examples or testimonies of the power and importance of God’s Word.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 reads, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

Psalm 119:110 declares, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, And light unto my path.”

Psalm 19:9-11 informs us, “7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; 8 the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; 9 the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. 10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. 11 Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.”

In addition to the centrality of the Scriptures in listening upwardly, God speaks directly to people. The examples I cited previously of God’s communication to Samuel, Moses, Mary and the prophet give evidence of God’s desire to communicate with people directly. The same continues today.

Through the spiritual exercises of listening prayer and spiritual reading, a person can learn to be centered in God and deeply attuned to the voice of God.

According to John 10:3, the believer in Christ is promised, “His sheep hear his voice…” God desires three things: that we recognize his voice, listen to his voice and obey his voice.

What follows here are some guidelines for listening prayer and spiritual reading. Although clear steps are outlined, it might be most helpful to compare upward listening to a dance with God as the lead partner and human beings responding to a dynamic, beautiful relationship in which we are known by God and we know God.

The more deeply familiar a person is with another, the more one communicates without needing a lot of words. The same is true in relationship with God. Having walked closely with the Lord since 1972, it now takes very little time to get my mind and spirit in attunement.

I freely acknowledge that there have been seasons in my life when the heavens seemed to be like brass and my prayers didn’t seem to reach more than a few inches beyond me. Those periods of silence, desert and darkness in the Christian life are discussed openly by the saints such as John of the Cross in The Dark Night of the Soul. Those periods when it is difficult to connect with God, have caused me to draw nearer, to go deeper, to surrender more completely, to die to myself so that Christ could live his life more fully in and through me (Galatians 2:20). These are confusing and difficult periods of the Christian life, but when offered back to God, they often result in greater depth of faith and a profound gratitude for times when communication with the living God is seemingly effortless, deeply moving and beautifully fruitful.

I now suggest some principles and steps in the process of listening upwardly. Communication with God is meant to be a dialogue rather than a monologue. We are to learn to speak with God and listen to God. Since God gave each of us two ears and one mouth, I suggest that it is more important to listen than to speak. When you are alone in prayer, listening to God should figure prominently in your prayer time. When I listen, I will often write down in a notebook or journal what God shows me so I can better understand and reflect on what God has been saying.

Listening also makes sense since there is nothing our all-knowing God does not understand. Listening to the Lord is a way of submitting to God. It enacts the words of Jesus in Gethsemane, “Not my will but thine be done” (Matthew 26:39). A willingness to listen to God demonstrates that we value what God has to say to us. When we tire from listening to ourselves or others, and learn to wait patiently for God to speak, we will be energized.

Some may be asking, “How do we dialogue with God? How do we begin to listen?” Here are some suggestions.

First, enter God’s presence in praise. We can do this in many ways. One of the most common is by worshiping God. Some do this through music or singing. Others may pray, meditate on and celebrate who God is – Creator, Provider, Covenant Maker, Sovereign, All-Knowing, All-Powerful, Savior of the World, etc. Still others enter God’s presence by quieting themselves, getting rid of distractions such as turning off radio, T.V. and cell phones and then attuning to God within and around using deep breathing and relaxation techniques.

Second, pray for the removal of any barriers which we have allowed to grow between God and us. Pray for God’s power to turn from any sin or brokenness in your life and relationships and pray for God’s power to turn to the Lord and recommit your body, soul and spirit in absolute surrender.

Third, ask the Lord to open your heart, to let his kingdom come alive in you. Having confessed your sin and asked for freedom and forgiveness in step two, now receive God’s forgiveness and ask the Lord to fill you fully with his love, purity, power and commitment. Ask the new seeds of faith would root, grow and become fruitful in your life.

Fourth, ask the Lord what he wants to give you. Perhaps it will be a deeper love for God, a more godly, holy life, a life of fidelity to our calling to be God’s children and God’s servants.

Having invited God to speak, then quiet yourself and listen to what God puts in your mind and heart. Be attentive to the flow of the Holy Spirit speaking to your mind and heart.

Dr. Mark Virkler provides helpful guidance for listening to God in the article, “Four Keys to Hearing God’s Voice.” If you desire to read the article, click on the link below. He also offers an online course in the subject. http://www.cwgministries.org/Four-Keys-to-Hearing-Gods-Voice

Fifth, we glorify the Lord for hearing and answering our prayers.

What follows is an outline of how to listen to God voice speaking through the Scriptures. Throughout church history up to this day, Christians have followed a pattern for listening. The pattern is called in Latin, Lectio Divina, which simply means Divine Reading. There are five parts to it, four of which are specified in most writings about Divine Reading, the fifth step is implied and equally important.

1. Reading

The first step in listening to God is to read. This reading involves reading the Bible and other devotional literature. When we read in order to listen to God, we read in a special way. We pray beforehand, expecting and inviting God to address us through what is being read. In other words, we don’t just read to learn; we read so as to allow ourselves to be transformed by the reading. We have the expectation that God can and will speak to us through the reading. We read slowly, thoughtfully until something ‘speaks to us,’ something connects with our life and experiences, we find a word of hope, healing or consolation.

2. Praying

The second step is praying. When we feel a connection with a particular word, phrase or idea, we stop and pray. We ask God what he is seeking to communicate through that word. We ask for the relevance of the Word of God to connect with our lives, our problems and our hopes and our joys.

3. Mediation

The third step in Divine reading is meditation. We use our minds to consider what God is saying. We ponder the people, events, and circumstances in the Word and think about how they parallel our own experience. We ask for the Holy Spirit, the Counselor to help us see, understand and apply the Word of God to our lives.

4. Contemplation

The fourth stop is contemplation. Having read, prayed, and meditated with a sense of expectancy and an invitational attitude for the Lord to speak to us, we become silent before God. Contemplation is largely silence and openness. It’s a simple, alert, yielded, waiting before God. During contemplation, God may clarify and solidify in our emotions and in our heart, what we have been hearing in our reading, prayer and meditation.

5. Action

As I said, there are the four historic steps taken by the people of God to listen to Jesus and God. The fifth and last step is implied by these four. That step is called action. Having read, prayed, meditated and contemplated, it is then time to act on God’s word. We need to put into practice God’s instructions. We need to follow through in obedience.

Some may ask, “How do you know if the words you hear are from God or someone else?” This is an important question. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, suggested that people test all leadings of this nature by applying the rule of scripture, tradition, experience and reason.

In other words, is what we have heard consistent with Scripture? God will never lead us in a manner which violates the tenants of the Bible. Is it in line with what the church believes and has traditionally or historically stood for over the centuries? Does it ring true with your own experience and the experience of other believers? Is it reasonable and in accordance with the way God has acted in the past? In these ways, we can test our listening before we take action on what God has said. Once we have done this, we should act in faith, trusting the outcome to God.

If you make a mistake in listening to God, do not be alarmed. God knows your heart’s desire to listen and obey. As we continue to listen (which is a daily, ongoing process), through the Holy Spirit, God will attune us to His will and bring us into holy alignment with His plans and purposes.

Listening to God is a positive, natural thing to do. Listening to God is normative Christianity. In other words, it is for all of us, not for a few of us. The steps outlined in Divine Reading — reading, prayer, meditation, contemplation, and action — are things that all of us can do with a little daily commitment and time.

The beautiful thing about this format for listening to God is the more we use it, the better and more confident we will be about listening to the Lord and responding to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. This type of listening is exciting, encouraging, and uplifting.

Jesus listened to God and to the counsel of divinely inspired messengers. Listening equipped him to do what God wanted him to do. Listening clarified what it meant to be faithful. Listening to God kept him on track and out of the traps of well-meaning friends as well as enemies. Jesus learned how to listen and he transformed the world.

God said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to Him.” This command to the disciples is applicable to us. It only makes sense to learn well to listen upwardly.

Listening Inwardly

The third component of three-way listening is learning to pay attention to what is going on within oneself. Attending to the voices of one’s own heart is very important.

Our life and experiences can have a deep impact on our feelings and perspective. If we learn to listen inwardly, it will help us utilize these feelings and perceptions in service to others. However, if we don’t learn to listen inwardly, our experiences can get in the way and sometimes even sabotage our attempts to help.

When I was in Clinical Pastoral Education at Duke University Medical Center, we were taught the importance of examining our own attitudes and experiences. By looking carefully at both positive and negative life experiences, a helping professional is able to draw out of this well to assist others in their journey to healing and wholeness.

If one does not carefully examine and experience healing for life’s difficult or traumatic events, these can undermine one’s effectiveness in coming alongside another as they deal with their hurt, grief, pain and disappointment. In simple terms, hurt people hurt other people. Healthy people can help people.

Every individual has recognized and unrecognized strengths. Every individual also has recognized weaknesses and unrecognized weaknesses. These latter two are often respectively labeled growth areas and blind spots in leadership assessments.

The goal of a healthy, helping leader is to develop recognized strengths, learn about and lay claim to unrecognized strengths, acknowledge the growth areas and become aware of the blind spots which so often lead to problems and pitfalls.

Helping leaders are often committed to life-long learning and maximizing their strengths as gifts from God. They are also committed to addressing and healing weaknesses and blind spots in order to minimize the negative impact of these areas.

In my work with Christian leaders, I frequently encounter men and women who are wonderfully gifted by God. They acknowledge God’s gifts in their life and work. These leaders are open to examining areas of weakness and blindness.

For example, if a leader grew up in a home where words and evidences of love, affirmation and acceptance were few, that individual can engage in people pleasing and workaholic behaviors to try to get those around them to affirm and love them.

It’s not that needing to be loved is wrong. Quite the contrary, we all need to be loved. However, if a leader is unaware of his/her need for love, based on a deficit of love and acceptance (often from the past), that individual can develop dysfunctional behaviors, such as people pleasing and workaholism to name just two possibilities, in order to earn that love from others. When this happens, the leader is driven by unhealthy motivations. They do or say things or not do and say things based upon their dysfunctions. When these dysfunctions operate as inner drivers, they become weaknesses or blind spots that undermine the leader’s authenticity and effectiveness.

Learning to listen inwardly involves examining and being aware of one’s strengths and honestly assessing weaknesses and blind spots. For maximum impact the healthy leader cultivates deep self-awareness and commits to healing dysfunctions, lies, and the lingering effects of trauma.

Across my life span, I have had the privilege of working with gifted mentors, pastors, counselors and spiritual directors who assisted me to peel back the layers of my past to examine what was there and how it continued to manifest in the present. This has resulted in wonderful discovery, healing of hurts and freedom to be the leader God made me to be.

No one is self-made. Every leader stands on the shoulders of others. They may be the parents, teachers, coaches, spiritual directors, pastors, mentors, wise friends, etc. whom God has placed in our path. We learn from them what to do and not do. We benefit from their gifts and draw wisdom from their mistakes. Everybody needs others like this. Those with a foundation in faith can serve also serve as sacred guides and companions.

The powerful gift of three-way listening is a dynamic, exciting, fruitful process. I hope that you sense the potential value of listening in this manner and will commit to learning to listen to others, God and your inner self. May your investment greatly benefit you personally and professionally for decades to come and be a living legacy you pass on to those you love.