Note: This article has been excerpted from the SmallGroups.com Training Tool Become a Great Listener.
According to Robert L. Montgomery, author of Listening Made Easy, the ten most common characteristics of a good listener are:
- Looks at me while I'm speaking.
- Questions me to clarify what I'm saying.
- Shows concern by asking questions about my feelings.
- Repeats some things I say.
- Doesn't rush me.
- Is poised and emotionally controlled.
- Responds with a nod of the head, a smile, or a frown.
- Pays close attention.
- Doesn't interrupt me.
- Keeps on the subject until I've finished my thoughts.
I'm impressed that two of the top three characteristics have to do with the ability to ask questions. A good listener, it seems, is also someone who asks good questions. So over the years I've worked on asking good questions—ones that will both keep the discussion on target and help me know more about the person with whom I talk.
In a small group, there simply isn't time for everyone to share at great length. So sometimes, when it seems appropriate, a leader must gently nudge the conversation toward spiritual concerns. That must be done naturally and non-intrusively, of course. A good rule of thumb is to change the subject only when others begin to run out of steam on their original topic.
For example, John is excitedly telling me about a remodeling project, going into great detail. I grow restless and want to get on to spiritual matters. While he's between sentences, I may be tempted to insert, "That's great, John. But how's the remodeling of your Christian life going?" That would be jolting and inappropriately timed. If I can't gracefully move the conversation along, then I'd just as soon hear people out on subjects that are dear to them.
At the right time, however, directive questions can link spiritual matters to the person's subject of conversation. For example, if the other person is talking about childhood, I might ask, "What memories of church do you have from childhood?" and "What did you most enjoy about your childhood church experience?"
I use gentle, subject-probing questions to discover background, feelings, attitudes, interests, questions, and needs. These questions help people focus on the subject at hand. They allow people to sort through their experiences and analyze their thoughts and feelings. They also help me learn key facts.
These questions are not that difficult to formulate. I simply ask, in one form or another, the classic journalistic questions: "Who?" "What?" "When?" "Where?" "Why?" and "How?" For example, if I'm talking with someone who expresses hostility about something, I might ask one or more of the following:
- "When did you begin to feel this way?"
- "What experience has most influenced you to feel this way?"
- "Why do you think you responded that way to that experience?"
- "Who has been helpful to you in this situation?"
- "Where do you think all this is heading?"
- "How have you tried to handle this so far?"
Such questions help me understand people and help people understand themselves. As a result, people often discover previously hidden inconsistencies or underlying assumptions.
1. Which signs of a good listener do you demonstrate well? Which need improvement?
2. How long should a leader allow the group to discuss trivial things before changing the subject to deeper matters?
3. In which group situations would subject-probing questions work well?
Copyright 1990 by Christianity Today. Originally printed in Mastering Pastoral Care (Multnomah Publishers, 1990).