Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Introverts, Extroverts, and Listening

Some of the best listeners I know are extroverts.

One of the reasons I am not discussing introversion and extroversion in my listening book is that I am dedicated to the idea that it is NOT a personality issue. God did not divide people into listeners and non-listeners based on where you sit on the energy continuum. You are not born with an innate skill of listening. No matter how quiet or loud you are, listening is always a skill to be honed, a discipline to be developed.

I have gone on record as saying that introverts may have a head start in listening, perhaps a fingertip lead from the starting block. As the conversation about introversion has swept our culture in the last year, it has been common to say that introverts are great listeners. The more I've thought about listening, the less sure I am about that. I suspect that introverts often have the appearance of listening but not always the substance. And I say that based on my own experiences of listening.

Allow me a moment of honesty. With all my training and experience of listening to people, I can put on a good show. I can make all the right facial expressions, nod and say all the right active listening noises at exactly the right time, even accurately paraphrase what I hear, and yet have my mind and heart be somewhere else. My hospice patients may come away feeling like they have been truly heard, and yet I know sometimes they haven't been. I do not enjoy admitting this. When I display the flash of listening but not the heart of it, I am usually protecting myself. The pain that I encounter, day after day after day, can be overwhelming, even with good boundaries, and so sometimes I will check my heart at the door as I walk in.

My point is this: only the listener truly knows whether genuine listening is taking place. A listening posture is always invisible. That is because true, deep, change-your-freaking life listening involves a full offering of oneself to another for a period of time - all the outward parts and all the inward parts. Only you, the listener, can know if the inward parts are coming along for the ride.

Introverts are often considered good listeners because they don't talk as much. And that's a good start. But listening is about so much more than not talking!! You can stare at a still pond all you want but you have no idea what kinds of ravenous creatures are lurking beneath the surface. A hoarder's house looks good from the outside, but if you get inside you're gonna trip over everything.

One of the gifts that an extrovert brings to a listening conversation is an outward-oriented attention. The inner voice may not be quite as loud, which may enable her to concentrate her focus on the speaker. While an introvert may need to devote energy to silencing the roiling inner monologue, her listening work will likely require more work in not processing out loud as much as she would like. But that outward orientation, if focused and refocused lovingly on the other person, is an incredible asset in the work of listening.

So let's not break down listening by personality type. The temperamental world is not divided into listeners and speakers. Listening is a discipline to be cultivated, a work of love for all God's people by all God's people.