This article is excerpted from Helping Group Members Become Great Listeners.
Unfortunately, most of us do not listen well. Instead of listening attentively, we wait for that split second of pause to jump in with our own stories and comments, our eyes wander the room, and our ears focus on other sounds. Attentive listening is a discipline that needs to be developed. It doesn't just happen.
Attentive listening comes as a response to prayer—praying for the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of our hearts while attentively listening to a person verbalize emotions, thoughts, experiences, and doubts. What is the Holy Spirit prompting you to hear? Where do you see God moving in this person's life? Where are you noticing spiritual growth and discernment that was not evident earlier? This is not the time to compare stories, give advice, or reprimand a person's actions. Listening is a time to appreciate and discern what is happening in another's life.
How Well Are You Modeling?
Developing listening skills should be part of every healthy small group. After all, if we cannot listen well to one another, how do we listen well to the voice of God? As small-group leaders, we need to model listening to our group members. How true are these statements of you?
- I always have eye contact with the person who is talking.
- I never shuffle papers or look around the room while another is talking.
- I don't look at my watch when someone begins to share.
- My posture is that of receiving—my arms are not crossed, I'm leaning slightly forward, and my body appears "open" to listen.
- I don't add to or embellish what someone else has tried to share with what I think they mean, possibly adding my own examples.
If we as leaders can model attentive listening, our group will begin to respond. Attentive and prayerful listening involves inviting the Holy Spirit into the process; it is counter-cultural to our normative practices. It is contemplative, careful, sensitive, evocative listening. This kind of listening develops trust, freedom, and openness, and it touches souls at the deepest level. Then we will "love one another deeply, from the heart" (1 Peter 1:22).
Talk About Expectations
In beginning a new small group, or at times when you're revisiting your covenant, an emphasis on the importance of attentive listening is critical. Remind group members that everyone has a chance to speak while others give the gift of attentive listening. When people feel they have been carefully and attentively heard, group bonding increases, friendship grows stronger, and prayer becomes increasingly powerful. This type of listening develops over time and can become a way of life. We hear God speak and see him work individually and corporately. Nothing is taken for granted. We "spur one another on." Some reminders for your group will be helpful:
- Each group member is encouraged to participate; no one dominates.
- One person speaks at a time; the rest listen and discern.
- No one is called upon; discussion does not go "around the circle."
- Everyone's contribution is important.
- Advice and criticism are not acceptable.
- There will be times when others can ask clarifying questions or speak encouragement into other group members.
Use Teachable Moments
As small-group leaders, we can help develop the discipline of attentive listening as we study. Whether you're studying the Bible or simply sharing life stories, your discussion will benefit from attentive listening. Pay special attention to application questions that introduce the opportunity for deeper listening. Truly listen to the answers given. Consider the following reminders:
- Watch your body language. You communicate a lot without even speaking. Keep eye contact and lean slightly forward. Make sure your arms aren't crossed, giving the impression that you're closed off.
- How do you respond when someone speaks more frequently than you wish? Prefacing a question with "let's hear from someone who has not shared" helps curtail the constant-comment person from dominating.
- Listen "between the lines." Watch the speaker's body language. Ask clarifying questions and encourage through comments such as "this must be a difficult time for you" or "we celebrate what God is doing in your life." The goal of listening is to understand what the person is trying to say at the heart level.
- If judging, criticizing, and giving advice surfaces from the group, immediately halt the conversation. For example, a leader can say, "Thanks for your interest in helping out, but we're giving advice more than listening at the moment." It takes boldness laced with gentleness! But judging, criticizing, and giving advice cannot continue if you want to listen well. If a group member is repeatedly engaging in this behavior, find a time to talk privately.
- Leader, you don't have to comment on everything that has been said. Choose facial expressions that show appreciation and affirmation. Nod along to show you agree and understand. Allow occasional times of silence before questions or comments. Silence is needed to reflect on what has been said.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes this in his fabulous book Life Together:
Listening is one of the most precious gifts we can give to one another. Stop for a moment and recall your own feelings when you last felt truly listened to … Listening says to the other person: "I care for you, I respect your uniqueness. How you feel and what you say matters to me. And in order to make this clear, I'm willing to set aside my own concerns, give you space to share yourself and offer you my focused attention. I want to try to understand the inexhaustible mystery of your inner world.
Everyone yearns to be listened to from a deep caring level. Amazing spiritual growth happens within a listening and discerning small group. Make your group members leave saying, "I feel so validated and encouraged because my friends really listened to me." The discipline will develop over time and flow into the life outside the group, family, culture, and marketplace. It begins with the leader and filters down into the life of the group.
—Diana Bennett is the Director of Small Group Ministries at Christ Chapel on Cape Cod. She also serves as the Consultant for Small Group Development and Training at www.LeadershipTransformations.org. Copyright 2012 by Christianity Today.
- How are you doing at modeling good listening to your group?
- When it comes to listening, have you had a conversation with your group about expectations? If not, why not? If so, has it helped? Is it time for another conversation?
How easily do you take advantage of teachable moments? How can you prepare yourself to use teachable moments to show your group members how to be better listeners?