How Can I Be a Better Listener?

Today, I pondered what I can do to be a better listener. Here are some relevant guidelines taught by the Book of Mormon:

1. Recognize your own limitations and prepare yourself to participate fully in the interaction.

When Nephi returned to his family’s camp after seeing a vision, he found his brothers “disputing one with another.” Nephi says he was “grieved because of the hardness of their hearts.” He was also overcome with emotion because of the things he had seen in the vision. Therefore, he did not engage his brothers in conversation immediately. He says, “After I had received strength I spake unto my brethren, desiring to know of them the cause of their disputations” (1 Nephi 15:1-6). I don’t know what he did to “receive strength.” In my case, it might have included a nap, eating some food, taking a walk, or just being alone for a while to pray and gather my thoughts. I’m impressed with Nephi’s emotional maturity in this passage. He was self-aware enough to know that he needed to “receive strength” before engaging in a difficult conversation with his brothers.

2. Eliminate distractions.

Nephi and the brother of Jared are two examples of Book of Mormon prophets who climbed mountains in order to pray and receive answers from God (1 Nephi 18:3, Ether 3:1). I don’t know why mountaintops are a good place to converse with God, but I suspect that one reason is to get away from other people. If you want to really listen to someone, including to God, find an environment where you can focus on listening with minimal distractions.

3. Receptiveness requires effort.

When King Benjamin gathered his people to give them his final words of counsel, he opened his sermon with an invitation to open their ears, their hearts, and their minds (Mosiah 2:9). No matter how capable the speaker, they can’t do all the work for us. We must intentionally choose to receive the message.

4. Give new ideas a chance.

If you think you know more than another person on a given topic, there’s not much point in making the effort to listen to them. But if you are open to the idea that they might have something to contribute, you might learn something new.

King Limhi wanted to find a way to free his people from bondage. He was working hard on devising a strategy when one of his people, a man named Gideon, came to him and made the following plea:

Now O king, thou hast hitherto hearkened unto my words many times when we have been contending with our brethren, the Lamanites.
And now O king, if thou hast not found me to be an unprofitable servant, or if thou hast hitherto listened to my words in any degree, and they have been of service to thee, even so I desire that thou wouldst listen to my words at this time, and I will be thy servant and deliver this people out of bondage (Mosiah 22:3-4).

Gideon presented his plan, and Mormon tells us that “the king hearkened unto the words of Gideon” (Mosiah 22:9). The plan was successful. Limhi was able to achieve his goal as a leader by recognizing and implementing a good idea recommended to him by one of his people.

5. Slow down.

After Ammon miraculously saved King Lamoni’s sheep from a band of marauders, the king was curious to know the source of his power but was also hesitant to speak with him on the topic. He called for Ammon to come to his presence. When Ammon arrived and saw the king’s countenance, he started to leave, but one of the servants said, “Rabbanah [meaning powerful one], the king desireth thee to stay.” Ammon asked, “What wilt thou that I should do for thee, O king?” Then, he waited for an answer. “And the king answered him not for the space of an hour, according to their time, for he knew not what he should say unto him” (Alma 18:12-14).

I admire Ammon’s patience. He waited until the king was prepared to talk. Then, with a little prompting, he and the king were able to have the conversation they needed to have.

Too often, my poor listening is a function of my being in a hurry, thinking about the next thing on my to-do list, anxious to finish the conversation and move on to the next activity. The next time I’m feeling anxious or impatient during a conversation, I’ll remember Ammon’s example, slow down a little, and let the conversation happen.

6. Learn the other person’s language.

As Ammon began to teach the king, he began with basic questions about his religious belief. When he asked, “Believest thou that there is a God?” the king replied, “I do not know what that meaneth.” Ammon followed up with terminology which the king was more familiar with: “Believest thou that there is a Great Spirit?” The king said, “Yea,” and Ammon replied, “This is God” (Alma 18:24-28).

Was Lamoni’s conception of the Great Spirit identical with Ammon’s conception of God? Of course not. But because he knew that the two concepts were similar, Ammon was able to identify some common ground, which provided a foundation for a constructive conversation. Joseph Smith said, “If I perceive mankind to be in error, I will build him up, and in his own way too if I cannot persuade him my way is better.” Learning how other people use words can help us to better understand them and communicate with them.

Today, I will strive to be a better listener. I’ll give other people the time and attention they deserve, eliminate distractions, be open to new ideas, and pay attention to how they use specific terms. I will remember that communication is a two-way street, and that I need to put at least as much effort into listening as I do into speaking.

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