Note: This material was originally written to help pastors improve their listening skills during visitations. It also applies to small-group leaders, both during a meeting and in one-on-one conversations.
As a pastor, my responsibilities include visiting the members of my flock inside their homes. I have experienced some success in this part of ministry, but I still find myself apprehensive about visiting people.
Why? Because I'm afraid I won't say the right thing at the right time. Maybe I won't say the appropriate word to calm the grieving widow or counter the objection of the unbeliever. Maybe I won't know what to say during a stretch of seemingly pointless conversation.
I can overcome such fear in one of two ways. I can learn to always say the right thing at the right time—but let's face it, that's never going to happen. Or I can realize that it's not saying the right things, but listening in the right way that's crucial to personal visitation.
I'll take the latter, and not because it's easier—actually, good listening can be grueling. But when I focus on listening to another person, it takes the pressure off me. I become less concerned about myself and more concerned about the person I'm listening to. I don't come as an expert ready to spew forth, but as a learner seeking to discover.
One of the most important listening skills I have encountered is attending behavior—the nonverbal parts of conversation. This includes eye contact, facial expressions, and body posture.
Attending behavior, for all its seeming passivity, is a powerful skill. In one experiment, six college students were trained in attending behavior. Then a visiting lecturer, not known for his dynamic lecturing, was invited to class. The lecturer was tied to his notes and used no gestures, and his voice droned on in a monotone.
At a prearranged signal, the students began to evidence attending behavior: they riveted their eyes on the lecturer, leaned forward in their chairs, and took on intent expressions. Within 30 seconds the lecturer gestured for the first time, his voice inflection became more dynamic, and his presentation more lively (from Robert Bolton, People Skills, Prentice-Hall, 1979).
Attending behavior is a powerful motivational tool. It draws people out. It lets them know they are being taken seriously. But attending behavior is subtle, so it's something I have to pay attention to, lest I communicate the wrong thing.
Some time ago, I was eating breakfast at a local restaurant with a friend. A man walked to our table and asked, "Are you Doug Self, the pastor?" When I said I was, he sat down and began telling us about his Christian commitment and plans to move to our area.
After a few minutes the man left, and my friend asked, "Why were you so aloof, so hostile to a new person in the community?"
"Aloof and hostile?" I asked, "What do you mean? I visited with him. I talked with him."
Then my friend pointed out that I had taken a body position that faced 90 degrees away from him, folded my arms, and looked out the window during parts of the conversation. I was surprised. I knew I was vaguely uncomfortable with the man, but I thought I had been gracious to him.
As I thought about it afterward, I realized what had happened. I have been burned by many people who come into our community, talk a good religious line, but end up causing problems in the church and community. Although I thought I was communicating acceptance to the man, my body was signaling what I felt inside: that I pegged him as potential trouble and hoped he would stay away.
Over the years, I have worked on my inherent prejudice against such people. And when I am aware that distrust is stirring within me, I deliberately monitor my body language. Sometimes such people have ulterior motives, but first I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, with my words and my body posture.
Copyright © 1990 by Christianity Today. Originally printed in Mastering Pastoral Care (Multnomah Publishers, 1990).