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The gift of listening

DAVID C. HAMMERLE

IF YOU WERE to ask the average audience what the word communication means, you would probably hear suggestions like talking, writing, expressing your feelings, teaching, and a host of other terms which describe a means of sharing your message with someone. However, one word not likely to be mentioned is listening. Most people think of communication from the standpoint of the first person singular: what I have to say.

On the other hand, sending out our message is only half the concept of communication. If no one is listening to what we send out, we have not really communicated anything. What kind of dilemma would the pastor face if no one were listening to what he was trying to say?

Look at the situation from another perspective and think of the lay people who attend church Sunday after Sunday. Is the pastor listening to them? If you would ask the parishioners about this, they would likely suggest the pastor is a busy person with a great deal on his mind, or find some other way to excuse the situation. If they admit the pastor doesn’t listen to them, they must question whether or not they are worth listening to. This is the message we send if we do not take the time to listen to our people both as individuals and as a congregation.

The fact is that many pastors, when engaged in a one-on-one conversation, leave the other party convinced they are interested only in telling their view or giving their advice. The problem which usually follows this kind of conversation is one of withdrawal where the other party feels his comments are not worth sharing. The pastor may continue to share and, because he is not interrupted, assume he is ministering to the person’s need.

A second problem which might result from one-sided communication is the feeling, "If the person doesn’t want to listen to me, I don’t want to listen to him." We might be sincere and our advice accurate; but if the people have turned us off because we have turned them off, we are sharing in vain. We then go about totally perplexed wondering why they are not doing what we have suggested they do and may label them stubborn.

Several simple but effective habits can be developed to make us better listeners.

The first and most obvious sign someone does not want to listen is the constant interruption pattern changing the subject or offering commentary in the middle of the person’s sentence or story. This is frustrating for one who is trying to choose the proper words to express exactly what is happening in his life. Any pause becomes an open door for the impatient counselor to begin commentary. If you have a problem in this area, ask a family member or friend to let you know when they catch you in the interruption pattern.

Eye contact is extremely important in any one-on-one communication. This does not mean you have to stare at the person sharing. Such actions could make him nervous and unwilling to share.

If you feel the person is uncomfortable with your eye contact, you might look away occasionally, but do not let your attention be fixed on anything else in the room, and be sure to return to the person within 5 to 8 seconds. Video specialists suggest 8 seconds is the longest span of time we can expect to hold visual attention without changing the scene. You might keep this in mind when shifting eye contact.

Eye contact will add to a conversation in two ways. First, it will tell the person he has the listener’s attention. This will make him more willing to share. Second, it will help the listener pick up on nonverbal communications which can tell a great deal about the person’s feelings as he relates an event or problem.

Another helpful tool to assure a person you are listening is the rephrasing technique. The listener might pick out some key phrases and repeat them for clarity: "Did I hear you say that...?" In addition to rephrasing, you might ask for further details: "What was your feeling when she said that to you?" In either case you are encouraging the person to share more information which informs him you want to hear everything he has to share. This will also allow you to gather more needed information before you make comment.

A final suggestion concerning one-on-one communication is to catch every opportunity the person offers to share. I realize this must be considered according to priority.

An evaluation form inviting comments and suggestions might be used to gain feedback concerning special activities such as a Sunday school crusade, a banquet, revival services. I’m sure such an evaluation will provide the complainer with a door of expression, but it would be better to hear the complaints in this manner than to catch them from the grapevine. This would also offer you opportunity to make a kind and informing response to some complaints and put some of them to rest. It will inform the people you are willing to listen to the good and the bad. Legitimate complaints and helpful suggestions could improve future activities and rally support.

The old-fashioned suggestion box should not be ruled out, but it should be checked regularly and referred to often; otherwise, some might think of it as a dead-letter box used to pacify complainers. If something worthwhile comes from the box, be certain to tell the people of your source of input.

Some leaders might be gifted in the art of listening; others will have to work hard at it. Because it is not listed as one of the gifts given to the church does not mean this is an unimportant tool of ministry. It comes under the category of apostle, prophet, teacher, and any other ministry, which requires that the servant of God listen to both God and man.