The Other Side of Speaking

Words matter in preaching. But words matter even more when you’re not the one speaking them. Listening is the other side of the communication and it is essential to pastoral leadership. The late Peter Drucker, whose work in leadership and management continues to ring relevant, asserted that, “The first leadership competence is the willingness to listen.” Listening communicates powerfully that you take the other seriously, that they are valued, that you appreciate them, and that you care. Besides, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, you can hear a lot just by listening. In other words, you can learn. You cannot effectively address the needs of a community if you do not know what those needs are. And you learn that by listening attentively and deeply for what is said and not said.

Listening is harder than it seems. It is not simply, as Simon Sinek has pointed out, “Waiting for your turn to talk.” It is not a passive verb. It is a discipline and one too often applied sloppily or carelessly – to the detriment of the enterprise. So how well do you listen? Macedonian Ministry invited Laurie Ferguson, a professional coach and an excellent one, to coach us on listening. We were pretty confident we would ace it. We were pastors, for heaven’s sake! How hard could it be? Turns out, it was harder than we anticipated and we didn’t do as well as we thought we would. Here are a few of the things I learned that day:

  • Listening requires engagement not just of the ears but of the eyes, the body, and the spirit. It requires genuine interest and curiosity. If you cannot gin up interest and curiosity in someone else – even more so someone who comes from a very different cultural or racial background – then you’re probably not going to be able to listen well to them or learn from them. And if you’re doing something else with your body (not maintaining eye contact like, say, looking at your computer or phone or papers) then you’re also probably not listening well nor learning what you need to know to lead them effectively. And you are certainly not giving them the tremendous (and rare) gift of your full and undivided attention. 
  • Listening requires that you hear the person out. You let them finish their thought. Let them talk even longer than you may want to listen. About a year ago I read a statistic that a person will interrupt some else, on average, after 17 seconds. I did not believe the statistic so for the next few months I just observed (I listened to) conversations of all kinds – at various dinners, with pastors with other pastors, with pastors and their staffs. Anecdotally, that statistic turned out to be about right. Yes, you probably do think faster than the person you are listening to does and yes, you probably can get to what they have to say before they can, but what have you gained other than a few seconds (ok, maybe even minutes)? What you have lost is the opportunity to show respect and caring, and the opportunity to learn. What you may also have lost is their respect and care and willingness to learn from you.
  • Ask intelligent (intelligent from having listened) questions to clarify, understand things more deeply, take matters to deeper level. And never start the question with ‘why”. For instance, “Why did you do that?” might better be replaced with, “What was your goal when you….” Why is a question that tends to set off defenses. It tends to shut down rather than open up a conversation.
  • Summarize back to the person (or group- your colleagues, boards, townhall gatherings, whatever the situation might be) what you have heard and check to see if you got it and got it right. This is typically a quick step but one that sometimes leads to surprising discovery and learning.

Jesus said, “Let those with ears, hear.” May it be so.

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