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Preparing to Listen
Published at www.smallgroups.com in August 2007
By Joel Comiskey
Someone said that when you’re fifteen years old, you are concerned about what others think about you. When you’re forty-five you really don’t care what people think about you. When you’re sixty-five, you realize that no one was thinking about you anyway! The truth is that all of us spend most of our time thinking about ourselves. Paul the apostle even said, “For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2:21).
A great place for training people to listen is the equipping process. Many churches, for example, have specific courses that each member takes. At Wellspring, the church I started, we use the fifth equipping book, Lead, to train members in listening. Then once a person is a small group leader, we have bimonthly group huddle meetings, where we remind the leaders of important small group dynamics, like listening. And of course, the small group leader should not hesitate to gently remind the group about the importance of listening. When teaching others how to listen, three areas stand out:
Listening is all about standing back from self to fully concentrate on what someone else is saying. The word listen in the Bible occurs 352 times, and the word hear is found 379 times. Jesus said, for example, “Therefore consider carefully how you listen” (Luke 8:18). Sadly, most of us don’t listen carefully. Stephen Covey says, “Most people do not listen to understand; they listen in order to answer. While the other is talking, they are preparing their reply." Yet, Scripture says, “He who answers before listening— that is his folly and his shame” (Proverbs 18:13). True listening is tough work.
Part of the reason that hearing others requires “careful listening” is because we talk much slower than we think. Some experts tell us that humans think five times faster than they can talk. Thus, when someone is talking, the listener can race around to many other thoughts and ideas, while checking in just long enough to get the basic gist of what the person is saying.
Lately, the Lord has been showing me the importance of concentrated listening. I coach various leaders in small group ministry. I find my mind preparing what I’m going to say next, rather than really listening. Part of the reason is because I don’t like the uncomfortable silence of not knowing what to say next. As I’ve been attempting to diligently listen, I’ve tried to listen to the very end and then flow with the uncomfortable silent periods. I’ve tried to make those silent periods work for me, knowing they are the fruit of fully listening to the person.
Looking people in the eyes while concentrating on what they’re saying has been an important revelation for me as I seek to listen to others. For example, when I’m leading the group and someone asks a question, it’s easy to get distracted by the “other voices” in the room (e.g., John’s yawning, Mary’s coughing, the car passing by outside, etc.). Looking the person in the eyes helps me to lock into what he or she is saying.
Making comfortable eye contact steers the thoughts in your head directly to the person at hand. It helps you to give yourself to the needs of the person, rather than trying to deal with all the competing noises.
Granted there’s a fine line between looking someone in the eyes and staring. Staring makes the person feel uncomfortable and is not helpful. Slight glances away can break you free from the staring mode while honing in on every detail of the conversation.
Often, the unspoken words are more important than the spoken ones. Yet to hear the unspoken words, it’s important to read between the lines. Experts vary on how much of the total communication package is non-verbal, but estimates range from 60% to 90%. They all agree on one thing: the vast majority of the communication experience is non-verbal. Reading the body language and voice inflection is essential for effective listening.
James the apostle says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). Listening is a gift we give to others. It requires sacrifice and self denial. The good news is that effective listening is a learned behavior. With the proper training, all of us can improve in this area and ultimately become excellent listeners.