I like this quote from David Burns, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania: "The biggest mistake you can make in trying to talk convincingly is to put your highest priority on expressing your ideas and feelings. What most people really want is to be listened to, respected and understood. The moment people see that they are being understood, they become more motivated to understand your point of view."
That's why it is so important that small-group leaders develop the skill of Active Listening.
Active listening begins with being truly interested in what the speaker has to say. It means removing distractions from your mind and focusing on the person talking. Start by really concentrating on them and watching for body language, stance, and position of the arms and hands. It is estimated that only 10 percent of actual communication is delivered in spoken words. The rest comes to us in the attitude of the body.
It's also important that you avoid the temptation to interrupt. More often than not, we interrupt with our own thoughts and ideas—in other words, our own agenda. And one of the most important steps in active listening is providing and receiving feedback. Let the person sharing know with a nod of the head or an affirming word that you understand. Better yet, restate your understanding of what the person just said after they have finished.
By listening to others we not only show respect, we also increase their sense self-worth within the group. This builds a greater sense of cohesion (or bonding) among group participants. Cohesion brings encouragement and motivation for true discipleship. And as a group's cohesion increases, so does its level of communication, positive interactions, and regular touch-points among members.
Quiz: How Good Are Our Listening Skills?
The following test can help determine your active listening quotient. Give yourself four points if the answer to the following question is Always; three points for Usually; two points for Rarely; and one point for Never.
Do I allow the speaker to finish without interrupting? _________.
Do I listen "between the lines" for the subtext? _________
Do I repeat what the person just said to clarify the meaning? _________
Do I avoid getting hostile or agitated when I disagree with the speaker? _________.
Do I tune out distractions when listening? _________
Do I make an effort to seem interested in what the other person is saying? _________.
Scoring: If you scored 22 points or higher, you are an excellent listener. If you scored between 18 and 21, you are better than average. At 14 to 17 points, you have room for improvement. And if you scored below 13, you need to immediately get someone to help you practice the following skills for Active Listening.
Basic Skills for Active Listening
First, give your full attention to the person speaking. Maintain eye contact and focus on them as share. A person communicates a lot more through their countenance and body gestures than they do through words. When a group participant is passionate about what they're sharing, let them fully vent their fears, frustrations, and other important feelings. You can show you're really interested in what they're saying by giving subtle affirmations like nodding your head.
Resist the urge to interrupt or interject advice. (Either action can be a signal to the one sharing that you're not really listening, even if you are, and can shut them down.) Make it your priority to be present with the person speaking and avoid the temptation to rehearse your response. On this note, it has been shown that thoughts move about four times as fast as speech. Since time is on your side, learn to take your time to think about what you're hearing, strive to understand it, and then give appropriate and timely feedback to the one sharing.
Next, identify the root issue being discussed and look for main ideas. Listen for the most important points the speaker is trying to get across. They tend to be mentioned at the start or end of a talk or repeated a number of times. Pay special attention to phrases like, "My point is …" or "The thing is …." Dig deeper into statements where the person sharing inserts emphatic words like "I really don't like …"
For example, you could say: "John, you seemed to feel strongly about … tell me more about why you don't like that." Active listeners seek to understand what a person is sharing, but they also recognize that it is of great importance to understand why they are sharing it. When you understand the "why: underlying a person's sharing, you are better equipped to respond meaningfully with feedback and prayer.
Stay focused on the person speaking until they feel like they're being heard. It can be tempting to dive into a story of your own to show how you relate, but it's important to let them get everything out they want to. It is okay to reference something similar that happened to you, but be sure to swing the attention back on to them quickly. Your diligence in staying focused will help the person sharing feel understood and genuinely cared for. Once feelings are expressed and completely downloaded, then a person is open to receiving input and guidance if that's what they desire. The best guard against a person not feeling heard or respected is a supportive ear.
Reflect back your understanding of what they're saying. In your own mind, summarize what the speaker has said and then reframe what you heard so they know that you're hearing them. Compassionately acknowledge and ask about (don't diagnose) the emotions they appear to be expressing. For example: "It sounds like the hurt from that tough experience still affects you at times. How has this season been for you in dealing with the issues that came out of that?"
It's okay to ask them to expand on what they're feeling. Oftentimes, when a person begins to open up, they won't open up all the way until they are invited to do so. Address the emotion first and then clarify the facts.
Collaborate on ways they can process. It is frustrating to the speaker when their listener tries to give advice or prescribe quick fixes—especially early on in their sharing. Even though most advice is well-intentioned, it has a way of short-circuiting further discovery and communication. Oftentimes, all a person really needs is to get something off their chest and BE HEARD. Unless the person sharing directly asks for your advice in finding solutions, they probably just want to feel heard and understood.
For that reason, only offer to brainstorm ways the speaker can process through their own solution after the "emotional pressure" behind what they're sharing has diminished and they invite input. (Depending on the situation, your group dynamic, and the available time, you might suggest doing this after your group's actual ending time.) Weave biblical wisdom into your solution-oriented collaboration.
The more you practice active listening, the more you will come across as a caring and supportive small-group leader. When you express your love through listening in the ways suggested above, your group will become a safer place for all, participants will forge a stronger bond, and future discussions will take on a more supportive angle.
—Reid Smith is the Community Life Pastor of Christ Fellowship Church in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and the founder of the 2orMore small-group leadership training and resource ministry. Copyright 2011 by the author and Christianity Today International.