Active Listening In Ministry
Someone asked a five-year-old child what she thought she would be when she grew up. She responded with one word: “Busy.” Sadly, busyness seems to be a key descriptor of many adults today. People engaged in ministry tend to wear busyness as a badge of honor. The word implies all the good things we do, the activities of ministry like preaching, teaching, and acts of compassion. However, if we are not mindful, the “tyranny of the urgent” may lead us to lose what is ultimately the most important: listening to those we serve.
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists of listening to them.” Listening is service. As such, we owe it to others to listen well. Not all of us are “born” good listeners, but we can all work to listen better by learning and practicing a few skills.
Key Listening Skills
In order to listen well, we have to set aside our preconceived solutions, perceptions, and the right to be right. I cannot truly listen to someone whom I have already judged negatively. The other person will never feel at ease to talk with me if he or she senses that I already think I know what is best for them. As we set presumptions aside, we create a safe place for the other to speak. We temporarily suspend our own agendas and interests and focus on the other.
Active listening goes beyond sitting passively while the other person talks. When I am fully present to the other, I give my whole self. I engage my senses through eye contact and visual observations, incline my mind to hear and understand, and offer my heart to what the other person feels. This kind of total attention allows us to “hear” the anger in a clenched jaw, or to read anxious hands twisting in a person’s lap. We sense the despair in slumped shoulders and translate the subtle changes in tone of voice.
Active listening involves checking to make sure we have understood correctly. If we simply parrot back what a person has said, we can sound phony. Paraphrasing in our own words (“I think I hear you saying . . . ”) allows us to determine whether we really have understood what the person means. We might try using our own images, saying “It sounds like____,” or “When you say that, this mental picture comes to mind. Does that fit for you?”
Active listening also reflects what we have “heard” with our eyes. Comments like, “I noticed you fought back tears when you talked about your dad,” or “It seems to be painful for you to remember that,” will communicate understanding beyond words. Often, after allowing the other to speak for quite a while, it can be helpful for us to summarize what we have heard, perhaps trying to organize the information into key points or steps in the story. We might say something like, “Let me see if I understand . . . ” or “I’ve noticed lot of losses as you’ve described the last year. Let’s list them.”
After we have listened, we can further the story through the use of productive questions. Some people sound like detectives when they ask questions, and the other person can feel as if he or she is being interrogated. Avoid closed questions—those that can be answered with one word, usually “yes” or “no.” This can keep the person from feeling as if he or she is being cross examined. Instead, we can learn the art of asking helpful questions. Open-ended questions require longer answers. Inquiries that begin with “how” (“How did he respond?”) or “what” (“What happened next?”) invite the person to tell you more.
Avoid asking for reasons. Questions beginning with “why” (“Why did you do that?”) often imply judgment, which can silence the other person. Beware of asking for details out of your own curiosity. Your role is not to be a voyeur, but to serve through listening to what the person wants to tell you.
Active Listening: A Worthwhile Challenge
Listening can be much harder than having all the right answers. Active listening is not easy, and it is not for cowards. When we listen actively to others, we allow their stories to emerge in their own words and at their own pace. Our attention encourages the other to continue adding details until the full narrative develops.
If the person has been wrestling with a problem or a decision, as you listen and reflect back what you hear, the person often will discover his or her own solution. At these times, the person will often leaved you puzzled by thanking you profusely for all your help. You may murmur that you really didn’t do much, because you hardly spoke. Those of us accustomed to busy, active service, may struggle to accept that the ministry of being present through listening has such a powerful impact. The beauty of listening is that it encourages and empowers the person to whom we offer it the gift of truly being heard. In the midst of the busyness of ministry, there may be no better use of my time than this: to lay down my schedule and truly hear what someone has to say by actively listening.
JUDITH SCHWANZ, author of Blessed Connections: Relationships that Sustain Vital Ministry (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2008), is professor of pastoral care and counseling at Nazarene Theological Seminary, where she teaches in areas such as grief and loss, marriage and family, and church health. She also directs the Wynkoop Center for Women in Ministry.