the shape of leadership

The Listening Leader

Hearing what people are saying is a vital part of ministry

Chris Colvin on July 23, 2020

There’s no doubt we have a problem hearing one another today. Divisions seem deeper than ever. We get offended by someone else’s opinion and defensive of our own. There is a breakdown in communication on every level. It has nothing to do with the volume of our voices, though. Instead, it seems to be a reluctance on our part to listen.

Listening may be the first step toward overcoming division. James prescribes listening as a vital part of ending arguments and extinguishing anger (James 1:19). Could it really be that simple?

There is a true power in listening. In any situation, listening can be a tool we use to deepen relationships and shorten divides. Listening not only makes us stronger individuals, but it also has the ability to transform our churches and ministries.

To understand the power of listening, we need to be clear about what listening means.

First, let’s consider what listening is not. Listening is not just waiting patiently for our turn to speak. Without listening, conversation just becomes two monologues instead of one dialogue. When you merely wait for a window to speak your own mind, you are not engaging with the other person.

Listening is not thinking of a reply. If you are discussing a topic of debate, it’s not your job as a listener to come up with a rebuttal while the other person is talking. If you are counseling, it’s not your job to arrive at a quick fix. That’s not to say you can’t reply, but it should only come after you’ve listened intently first.

Over time, societal expectations often lead to misconceptions about the act of listening. As students, we were expected to have the right answer when a teacher called on us. As ministers, we are expected to solve certain problems.

So, listening becomes a means to an end. Yet the act of listening itself can be the avenue we use to build bridges and connect others to Christ.

Active and Passive Listening

Let’s think about how we listen for a moment. Most of us think of listening as a passive exercise. That’s why we feel free to actively think of a response or try to get our own words in. Listening may make us feel like we’re not doing anything. But listening can be an action.

In sales and customer service, people learn the art of active listening. Often, the first training sessions in those fields zero in on this.

Active listening is a way to engage another person through intentionality. Listen with the intent of hearing the other person’s words and getting the gist of what they are saying. Gather the details of their story or argument. Then you will be able to gain their perspective.

Intentional listening requires engagement. This can be accomplished through simple gestures, like nodding your head and maintaining eye contact. Reduce distractions, such as doodling or looking at your phone while the other person talks. And use words of affirmation like, “Yes,” or, “I see.”

Active listening can continue after the person has stopped talking. This is one of the biggest keys to becoming an intentional listener. Use clarifying statements or questions to make sure you really do understand.

When you are respectful of others, they will be more likely to return that respect — even if they still disagree with you.

Start with, “What I hear you saying is … .”

Assume the best of the other person. There may be a few ways to interpret what someone is saying. It’s easy to take the most negative sense, making it a sort of “gotcha” moment.

Instead, try saying, “I know you didn’t really mean to offend me when you said … .”

This not only diffuses your anger, but it also allows the other person to clarify his or her position.

The Power of Listening

With the right approach, listening can be a powerful tool to win friends and influence people for the Kingdom.

As a minister, you will encounter people who want to talk — including some who have an ax to grind. You’ve probably heard from people who were upset about something you did or said. Your first instinct may be to correct them for not listening. Instead, try the approach of listening to their perspectives.

Here are five reasons to listen more in ministry:

1. You will find common ground. Areas of agreement strengthen the relationship and create a foundation for further discussion.

2. You will demonstrate respect. When you are respectful of others, they will be more likely to return that respect — even if they still disagree with you.

3. You will show compassion. When we encounter someone who is going through a crisis, grieving a loss, or feeling hopeless, our first inclination may be to find a solution. While the person is talking, we start thinking about ways to solve the problem.

Sometimes people don’t want to hear solutions — at least not right away. While they are talking, they just want someone to hear them out. After they finish, you might say, “I’m really sorry to hear that. I can see you’re going through a lot.”

Although you haven’t offered any fixes, you have shown empathy.

You may be surprised to hear something like, “Thanks, I really needed to get that off my chest. I feel so much better now.”

Without extending an offer to resolve their concerns, you have already helped more than you can imagine. Of course, offering to pray is always an appropriate response.

4. You will discover opportunities to point people to Jesus. As preachers, we assume the best way to lead someone to Christ is by speaking. That’s often true, but in one-on-one relationships, we must first be willing to listen. Don’t just hear the immediate need; listen for the spiritual need behind what the person is saying.

Each person has a unique life history. By learning more about them, you will be in a better position to share God’s truth. For example, you’ll learn about their roadblocks to faith. Perhaps it was a past experience with church that turned them off. Listening to people gives you insight for ministering to them.

5. You will give space to the Holy Spirit. While listening, we must stay open to the Spirit’s guidance. If we are actively engaged in coming up with a response while someone else is talking, we may miss what the Holy Spirit is saying.

But if we keep a keen ear to the inner voice of the Spirit, we may be able to respond with words we couldn’t come up with on our own.

Throughout Scripture, we are reminded God hears those who call on Him. He is a listening God, and we need to be listening followers. As leaders in His church, let’s not overlook this simple but powerful aspect of ministry.

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