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Are You a Good Listener?

Are You a Good Listener?

Pastor Ted Cunningham shares one of his own personal challenges – becoming a better listener. He explains the obstacles we face when it comes to listening well, and offers ideas for overcoming those obstacles in order to hear what our friends and family are trying to tell us.
Original Air Date: November 25, 2019

Pastor Ted Cunningham: Show me your face. Let me hear your voice. I don’t want to have a conversation with you from three rooms away. Come in here. I want to see you. I want to hear you. I want to remove distractions

John Fuller: Pastor Ted Cunningham has some really good advice to help all of us become better listeners on today’s episode of Focus on the Family. Your host is Focus president, Jim Daly, and I’m John Fuller.

Jim Daly: Ted is one of our favorite speakers on the subject of marriage because he offers great nuts and bolts ideas along with a healthy dose of humor. And that’s what you’re gonna hear today.
Ted is the founding pastor of Woodland Hills Family Church in Branson, Missouri, and the author of several books on relationships, especially between husband and wife.

John: And you can find out more about Ted Cunningham and his book, Fun Loving You, at

Here’s Ted speaking at a recent gathering of the Focus on the Family staff.

Ted: So, a journey I’ve been on for about the last year and a half is to become a better listener. How many of you think you’re awesome listeners? Would you raise your hand?  (LAUGHTER)

This is a fun place to work, isn’t it, Jim?  (LAUGHTER)

How many of you think you just have a little bit of improvement, but you’re not a terrible listener, but you could get better? OK, it’s the rest of us. So, this – this is the journey I’m on because, uh, about a year and a half ago, I asked my wife and son at lunch – I sat down, and I said, “Scale of 1 to 10” – I was enthusiastic about it – “Scale of 1 to 10, how good of a listener am I?” And my wife – this was over lunch – immediately said, “5.” And I said, “Well, why don’t we take the lunchtime…”  (LAUGHTER)

“…Think about it a little bit. You don’t need to give me an answer right – I don’t need it right now.” I said, “Carson” – and he’s my 13-year-old – I go, “How am I doing listening?” He said, “About a 5.” And, I mean, they could see it all over me, like, this is not good. This is not – I was expecting more. My wife’s nickname for me is ‘Marriage Boy.’ I gotta be doing better than a 5. And Amy could see that this was really working me over. So, she came into the rescue right away. She said, “Now, I will tell you, when we have your undivided attention, I’d give you an 8.”  (LAUGHTER)

So that’s good. I know that’s exactly what I need to do – be focused, be in. I said, “Carson, what do you think I should do?” And without batting an eye, he goes, “Dad, the next time I ask for money, listen.”  (LAUGHTER)

Not at all the point of that exercise.  (LAUGHTER)

So, I’ve been working this out in my own life for the last year and a half, trying to work my way toward an 8, being a 5 listener. So, this afternoon, I want to talk to you about how to help your spouse win every argument. How you can be a great listener. And if you listen well – it’s interesting – the issues just kind of go away. I’ve noticed this over the last year and a half. If I’m fully engaged in the conversation, I’m not distracted, I’m not thinking about something else, I’m not distracted by the environment, I can be fully engaged in the conversation and let Amy know I’m here, I’m present, it’s amazing how quickly we just move away from whatever it was we were about to have conflict over.

And I said, “OK, so here – I am going to become a professional listener. This is my goal.” I hope this becomes your goal. You want high levels of marital satisfaction? Listening beyond a 5 – that’s all I’m here to tell you – listening beyond a 5. Marital satisfaction depends on factors and skills couples can do something about in any season or stage of life. And so, I’ve been honing in on the listening skill – how to increase my marital satisfaction by becoming a better listener. And I take you to the Song of Solomon, Chapter 2, Verse 14, where Solomon is speaking to the Shulamite woman. They’re not yet married. They get married in the next chapter. But this is what he says. “My dove” – let’s stop right there. Guys, if you don’t have a pet name for your wife, go with ‘my dove.’  (LAUGHTER)

It works. And here’s all you need to do to begin the conversation – (cooing).  (LAUGHTER)  (Cooing).  (LAUGHTER)

I’m not kidding. Listen; I don’t know if your wife ever tries to have a conversation with you from three rooms away. This is the most exhausting thing about trying to communicate in a home. I hear her from another room, and this is all I hear – (unintelligible). – and it goes on and – (unintelligible). I used to say, “What?” And she’d launch right back into (unintelligible).  (LAUGHTER)

You know what I do now when she’s three rooms away and she starts a conversation that I can’t understand? (Cooing). (LAUGHTER) (Cooing). It’s my dove call.  (LAUGHTER) It works. Look at – “My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hiding places on the mountainside.” He’s wanting to get to know her. It doesn’t say my mountain lion. It doesn’t say a snake. Solomon uses a gentle, tender dove. And she’s back into the hiding places on the mountainside. He wants to draw her out. How do you draw out a dove? You don’t just go in there and start jabbing to try to get it. You’re gentle. You’re tender. You’re (unintelligible) – (cooing).  (LAUGHTER) (Cooing).

Show me your face. Let me hear your voice. I don’t want to have a conversation with you from three rooms away. Come in here. I want to see you. I want to hear you. I want to remove distractions. I want to get rid of the children. And the technology. And everything – they’re gonna be out, and it’s gonna be you and I, eyeball to eyeball, having a conversation. And then when you do speak, I’m gonna be the safe spouse. Your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. (Cooing). Coo – I love this. I was just in Louisiana teaching, uh, them how to do the dove call. And…  (LAUGHTER)

And one guy came up to me after the session. He goes, “Pastor, you do that around here, you’re gonna get shot.”  (LAUGHTER)

But what Solomon is speaking about here – we read these three great word pictures in Proverbs. Proverbs 3:3 speaks of the heart as a tablet – that messages are written on the tablet of the heart. Proverbs 4:23 talks about the heart being a wellspring. Every word you speak and every action you take, it flows from your heart. And then Proverbs 20, Verse 5 – “The heart is like deep waters, and a person of understanding is able to draw them out.” I love all of this imagery. From the dove to deep waters, I want to be a person of understanding, a person of insight in my marriage. So, I just want to listen. But we’re losing the listening skill in our culture. I think we’re getting worse at listening. But listening is the fast track to your spouse’s heart, to the deep waters.

Uh, we live in a day where we get our news from algorithms on social media and cable news networks that reinforce our biases. Which means we’re only wanting to listen to news we agree with. How’s that working in your marriage and in your family? I’ll listen to you when I agree with you. Do you remember when we used to watch the news to find out what was going on? Now we turn it on to figure out, what should I be mad about today? And it just gets us all spun up and all fired up.

Healthy people – or the Scripture – I’ll start with this. Proverbs 18:2 – “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding but only in expressing his opinion.” Healthy people are not threatened by the opinions of others. And I’ll bring this back to marriage. A healthy husband is not threatened by the opinions of his wife. A healthy wife is not threatened by the opinions of her husband. Listening to you does not mean that I agree with you. And this is the big one; disagreeing with you doesn’t mean that I hate you. It just means I have a difference of opinion. You know what listening does? Listening screams, “You matter to me.” Listening screams, “I want to get to know you. I want to find out what’s in your heart.” And I can’t do that as a husband when I’m running my mouth. This may shock you, but I’m the talker in our family.  (LAUGHTER) And as Christmas approaches, this – I couldn’t quite grasp this. Amy and I, we’ve always had very different opinions on how Christmas should be celebrated. Very different. My wife grew up in a home where there was garland over every door. A tree in every room. You can’t start decorating until just the right cookie is being baked in the oven, and the Christmas – Bing Crosby is playing on the – the radio. And I never understood, when we got married, why I was so angry every December. Like, I just – like, why am I – why – why – by the time I pull the 46th box down out of the attic that says Christmas decor on it, I’m in no mood to celebrate the birth of my Lord and Savior. I’m ticked.  (LAUGHTER) You know why? It’s all about the heart, the tablet of the heart. The message on Amy’s heart is, Christmas is celebrated long and with lots of money.  (LAUGHTER)

I’m sorry; I – I have to do this in a place that screams I’m learning. But I didn’t. I never could figure out when our kids would come over with an ornament that they made the year before and be like, “Hey, Dad, I made this ornament last year.” “Put it on the tree.” Like, what – where did that just come from? Well, it came from my heart. You know what my heart says? My heart says Christmas isn’t that big of a deal. You know why? My family – we decorated for Christmas on a commercial break.  (LAUGHTER) My dad, while we’re watching That’s Incredible!, would say, “Hey, we should probably decorate for Christmas.” And he’d go over to the crawl space, take the pegboard off the crawl space, reach in, grab a three-foot, pre-decorated tree with a garbage bag over it, put it on the humidifier. And we’d take it off. (Singing) “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” Year after year after year of that, the message on my heart was, Christmas just isn’t that big of a deal. On Amy’s heart, the message is, Christmas is big! You start planning it in the summer, and you launch it the morning after Halloween.  (LAUGHTER)

This is why we moved to Branson, Missouri. We celebrate Christmas for three months in Branson. It’s a big deal for her. But I don’t have to change that in her. But now she is – my wife’s way better at listening. I give her an 8 or 9. Way better at listening than me. She’s the one that listened to my heart to find out, why are you so angry with decorating for Christmas? Healthy people can decorate for Christmas without escalated arguments. I said, “Not – not where I grew up, no.” But she would listen, listen, try to figure out, and then we figured it out. The way our family decorated, year after year after year, wrote these messages on the tablet, the wellspring, the deep waters of our hearts.

John: Ted Cunningham on Focus on the Family. And a quick reminder that you can make a donation and get a CD of this message, and Ted’s book, Fun Loving You, when you call 800, A-FAMILY. 800-232-6459. Or donate online at

Let’s go ahead and hear more, now, from Ted Cunningham.

Ted: Listening and understanding your feelings doesn’t mean I agree with your opinions. Amy and I still don’t 100 percent align on things. Her – she’s the same way with birthdays. Birthdays are a big deal. The message on her heart – birthdays are one – I’m sorry, birth weeks are very important…  (LAUGHTER) … in the life. And I grew up with a mom and a dad who loved me. But birthdays – we didn’t have big parties. We didn’t – my mom and dad would put a 10 or a 20 on the table and yell up the stairs, “Happy birthday, Son” – years of that. How many of you grew up the same way? It was just similar. It just put a message on your heart. And now you get married. You bring your family of origin, and she brings her family of origin, and we have differences of opinion. But the quality of our marriage and the level of marital satisfaction for us is when we listen to get into the heart, to the tablet, to the wellspring, to the deep waters to find out what’s going on. And when we do find out what’s going on, we live with fascination. Not trying to change each other. But we have these aha moments. Have you ever been at your – your in-laws’ house, and they say or do something, and you’re like, “Huh…”?  (LAUGHTER) “…That’s why?” Like, you…  (LAUGHTER)

You’ve been married for 10, 20 years, and you could never figure out this one argument or what was going on. And then something is said or done, and you’re like, “My husband watched that for 20 years. And it wrote a message on his heart.” “My wife heard you say that over and over and over and over again. It wrote a message on her heart.” See, the fun of marriage is discovering those messages. And you can’t discover them when your mouth is running. And all God’s people said…

Audience: (Amen).

Ted: It’s about listening. Listening to you, Amy, does not mean I need to solve your problem. It means I’m just getting to know you and that you matter to me. Here’s a big one. I can listen to your opinions, Amy, without seeing it as an attack on mine. I’m just gonna listen. I want to be a healthy listener, not threatened by the opinions of everyone else.

But there’s a lot of bad listening styles that I have. I came up with about 12 of them. And after sharing these for a couple of months now, people have brought me more, so the list has grown to 15. And these – these would represent 15 bad listeners. And I’m just gonna give them to you in rapid fire. I’m about 5 of these 15. Uh, you may be several of them. You may be one of them major. But I’m just gonna run through them. The first bad listener is what I would call the nodder. If you’ve ever seen the nodder, it’s the person that always, when you’re trying to talk to them, they’re going, “Uh-huh, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.” It’s the person who took a management course at work.


And in that course, they were told when someone is speaking, give them an emotional cue or a signal; be responsive. And the person never quite learned how to bring balance to that. And so, when you’re trying to talk to them, all you get – “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, oh (laughter), yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” And you’re like, yeah, I’m done with this conversation. This is too much.  (LAUGHTER)

Nodders. You can nod to let them know you’re – just bring it down a notch; that’s all we’re asking.

The eye roller. The eye roller. The conversation hasn’t even started yet, but just the mere mention of we’re going into this conversation about money or about in-laws or about jobs – “Ah.”  (LAUGHTER)  I’m an eye-roller. And I don’t think anything communicates contempt more than an eye roll. And it’s not just I don’t want to listen to you talk about this. You got to go deeper than that. I don’t want to listen to you. Right? That’s what contempt is. Contempt goes past a person’s opinion right to their soul, to their character, to who they are.

The eye wanderer. This is the person that’s looking for a better conversation. The person looking for something better to do. The bored. This is the person the lights are on, but no one’s home. They’re not fully there and engaged.

I’m the distracted listener. The distracted listener is distracted one of two ways. Either by everything going on in their mind and all of their lists that are constantly running or by their environment. I can be distracted by both. Noisy restaurants are not great places for me to try to engage in a deep conversation because I’m so distracted by everything going on.

The watch glancer. This is the one that – I mean, nothing says rude more than looking at your watch while someone is sharing their heart with you. And whenever someone does that to me, I just tap on their watch and go, “I’ll be done in just a second.”  (LAUGHTER) The watch glancer.

The new one is the scroller. This is the person that, in the middle of a conversation, they take their phone out and start scrolling. (LAUGHTER)

Oh, the next three.

The one-upper. You’ve heard the one-upper. It’s like, if you’ve been there, they’ve been there far more times than you have; it was a better trip; they’ve done it more; they’ve been there more; they love it more and that you can never get one-up with them.

Or the one-downer. We don’t talk about this one a whole bunch. The one-downer is the person – and I deal with this a lot (laughter) with senior adults. You hear them talking about their illnesses, and they’re trying to one-down each other.  (LAUGHTER) And you’ll – you’ll hear – I’m from Branson. We minister to a lot of senior adults. But you’ll hear a guy go, “Man, I’m not feeling well.” “You’re not feeling well today? You don’t know what not feeling well is like. Ah, let me.” And then they start discussing very inappropriate things with one another.  (LAUGHTER) It’s like, I – we’re not competing over your sicknesses here and your illness.

But maybe you come home from work, and you’re – maybe you’re married to a one-downer. And you’re like, “I had a rough day.” “You had a rough day? You have no idea what I’ve put up with at work or what I’ve put up with around here.”

The overvalidator. Oh, this is one – I actually got this from a friend recently. Uh, she said, “Ted, you need to add this to your list.” Uh, they’d been through several miscarriages as a couple, and she said, “Over our last one” – and these are – I mean, we – Amy and I walked through this with them. But they’re heart-wrenching. And she said, “Ted, the number of people that stopped by to visit me and to share their story with me” – so we – reading Galatians, every man must carry his own load, but we’re to carry each other’s burdens. She said, “I finally had to tell someone who came in to validate what I was going through – but they didn’t see what they were doing. They were just putting more and more on me.” She said, “I finally put my hands up to this person and said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa’” – I mean, this was, like, a day after they lost their child. She said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, please, please, please don’t. I’m already carrying such a load right now. I can’t carry any of yours.” The overvalidator – the person who thinks they’re helping, but they’re not really lis – just listen.

I – as I shared this at a church in Houston a couple months ago, a lady said, “Ted, I – you know, I didn’t realize that it could be of any value, but we have dear friends who just lost a son to brittle bone disease. And when my husband called me and said, ‘We need to go over and be with them,’ we walked in, and the husband was in the family room, and my husband stayed with him, and he told me that his wife was back in the bedroom on the bed. They were crying.” And she said, “Ted, uh, all I knew to do was to just lay down in bed next to her” and said, “For three hours,” she said, “I had to fight through awkward moments of where I feel like I should say something right now; I should do something right now.” But she said, “For three hours, I didn’t say anything.” And I told her “What a great ministry you had that day.”

The bottom-liner. The bottom-liner is the person that you’ve been into the story long enough, they got enough information, let’s be done with it.

The interviewer. The interviewer comes to the conversation with a plan and with questions. And if you’ve been around an interviewer, it can be quite exhausting where they’re like, “OK, next question, next,” and they don’t allow you to finish one question before they’re launching into the next question. It can drain the energy.

The hijacker. “We’ve been listening to you long enough. It’s my turn.”

The debater. The debater’s always trying to shoot holes in your logic. Or you share something you heard. “Where did you hear that?” They want you, like, to cite what you just came up with.

And then the sentence completer. The sentence completer is the one who you’re – you’re – you’re not even finished, and they’re finishing the sentences for you. And, you know, Amy – Amy admits she can be a sentence completer. And we were, uh, years ago, getting ready in the bathroom, and she was on the other side of the shower curtain, and we’re having a great conversation. I thought, oh, this is a good time to go make the coffee because I thought the conversation was over. And I go down to the kitchen. I make a pot of coffee. I’m pouring the coffee. I come walking back down – I set the coffee down. But as I’m walking back towards the bathroom, I realize, wow, there is still a conversation going on in the bathroom.  (LAUGHTER)

So (laughter) I come racing back in there, and I set the coffee down. And if you’ve ever – if your husband’s ever had this moment where he’s like – he’s just trying to process what’s going – he’s – before he speaks, he wants to know what happened. And I’ll tell you what happened. I left, and she didn’t see me leave ’cause the – she’s on the other side of the curtain. While I was gone, she asked me a question. And I wasn’t there, which was no big deal. She answered the question for me.  (LAUGHTER)

OK? She did not like my answer.  (LAUGHTER)

She did not like my answer. And I’m like, what just – sentence completer.  (LAUGHTER)

A few more passages to share with you. Uh, Proverbs 15:30 says, “Bright eyes gladden the heart.” A joyful heart makes a cheerful face.

So, I’ve been working for us on the point of reconnection at the end of the day – like, when we see each other after the end of a long day, to just not be that one who walks in and throws stuff down and tends to stuff, gets the garbage and changes the lightbulb and takes in the mail and starts flipping through the mail. The first thing I want to do to show her I’m listening – now, I walk in, and I give her bright eyes. So, if she’s across the kitchen, and I walk in – and this is all you do, guys. You walk in, and you just go…  (LAUGHTER)

You tilt the head back and forth a little bit. Then Song of Solomon, Chapter 2, Verse 6 – “His left arm is under my head, his right arm embraces me.” So, here’s what I do. I walk in. I see her.  (LAUGHTER)

And then I walk over to her. I put my left hand right there behind her head. Are you paying attention, guys? This is big. You’re gonna be doing this tonight when you leave.  (LAUGHTER)

And you bring her down to here.  (LAUGHTER)

And what does it say? His right arm embraces me. Look how Biblical this is. Let’s do it again. Let’s walk through it one more time.  (LAUGHTER)

And you look her right in the eyes. And you say, “Coo, coo.” Thank you, Focus. It’s been great being with you this afternoon.  (APPLAUSE)

Jim: That was really good, wasn’t it?

Jim: (Cooing).

Ted: (Cooing).

Jim: All right. I’m gonna test this theory. I like to think of myself as a good listener. I do interview people. So, let’s just dial it up right now. I’m calling Jean. Right now. Let’s see if we can get this through here.  (PHONE RINGING)

Jean Daly: Hello. This is Jean.

Jim: (Hooting).

Ted: That’s an owl.

Jean: What?  (LAUGHTER)

Jean: Are you a weirdo? I’m hanging up.

Jim: Did you hear what…?

Ted: What’d she say?

Jim: What-what?

Jean: Are you a weirdo?  (LAUGHTER)

Ted: You did the owl. That wasn’t a dove.  (LAUGHTER)

Ted: That wasn’t a dove.

Jim: I have to repair my marriage tonight now. Thanks a lot.

Ted: You bet.

Jim: Ted Cunningham!


Jim: (Laughing)


John: Well we had so much fun with Ted at a recent Focus on the Family Chapel. And Jim, what did Jean have to say about that phone call when you got home?

Jim: (Chuckling) It was kind of like, “What were you doing?” (Laughing) “What was that all about?”

John: (Laughing)

Jim: She didn’t quite… I didn’t do the animal sound the way Ted wanted me to so I blew it.

John: I think it was context.

Jim: (Chuckling)

John: It was coming out of left field for her, right?

Jim: I told her I was learning how to be a better listener. And uh… at least she appreciated that part. Uh, but you know many of us will be seeing our extended family this week. Or perhaps as we get closer to Christmas time. But let me encourage you to follow Ted’s advice and just listen. Listen to understand. Not to debate. Listen to let that person know that you care about ’em. You don’t have to agree with them. Just hear them. It can make a big difference in your relationships.

John: Well we’ve experienced that as my kids have become adults…

Jim: I bet.

John: And one’s married, now. We get ’em all together and there are some differences of opinions that can really come up and flare up. But we’ve just got to be able to give grace and hear them out. That really is important when you have so many different opinions.

Jim: Well, what a great way to get to know someone better. To give them time and space to share their heart. And of course, that applies in our marriages, as well, as Ted beautifully illustrated today.

And you know our research tells us that Focus on the Family has helped over 700 thousand couples build stronger marriages or get through a major marital crisis in this past year.

And if you’re a regular donor to this ministry, let me say thank you for helping us strengthen marriages around the world. Your gifts do make a difference.

Here’s a note we received from a woman I’ll call Kelly. She said, “17 years ago, I almost divorced my husband. A Focus counselor gave me solid advice and sent a book about boundaries. Now my husband and I have celebrated 30 years of marriage, and my walk with God is stronger than ever! Thanks, Focus.”

But let me say thank you to you – those who support this ministry. You deserve that credit, as well. And obviously, God deserves all the credit.

And if you need help for an issue in your marriage, just give us a call and ask for a call back from one of our caring, Christian counselors. They’ll spend some time with you on the phone, suggest some next steps, and perhaps recommend you attend our Hope Restored four-day intensive. Our counselors were there for Kelly 17 years ago, and they’ll be here for you today, so just call us!

And when you make a donation of any amount, I’d like to send you a CD of this great message from Ted Cunningham, as our way of saying thank you. So, get in touch with us today.

John: And you can do that by calling 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. 800-232-6459. Or donate online and request the CD at

When you’re online let me recommend that you check out our Focus on Marriage Assessment which is a free, easy way to identify the strengths in your relationship, and it offers some insights about areas of improvement, as well.

Next time, you’ll hear how an unexpected phone call, and an encounter with Jesus, led a man to forgive his alcoholic father.


Jason Romano: But I realized at that moment that the forgiveness wasn’t for my dad, even though I had to tell him. It was for me.

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