Think of a time when a person turned to face you squarely and displayed a sincere desire to fully hear and understand you. Chances are, that kind of undivided attention made quite an impact on you. More than likely, you felt accepted and encouraged to say whatever was on your mind. You may have even been open to hearing some counsel or advice from that listener, because you felt so understood by him or her. Listening at this level provides a foundation of trust necessary for producing stronger interpersonal relationships, because it expresses unselfish love and concern (see Philippians 2:3, 4 and James 1:19).
It seems to rarely occur, but whenever we are heard at such a deep level, we feel the freedom to safely express and process our ideas, problems, impending decisions, and emotions. Such listening communicates how much the listener really wants to know and understand us. And that’s quite a gift.
As seeker small group leaders, we gain overwhelmingly positive benefits through the practice of concentrated listening. As we listen intently, we receive greater insights into the lives of our seeking friends, enabling us to effectively focus the small group discussions more directly on their needs and concerns. But the real question before us now is this: How can we become better listeners? Are we equipped and trained to really hear our seeking friends at this level? In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey puts the question this way: “Communication is the most important skill in life. We spend most of our waking hours communicating. But consider this: You’ve spent years learning how to read and write, years learning how to speak. But what about listening? What training or education have you had that enables you to listen so that you really, deeply understand another human being from that individual’s own frame of reference?” I am convinced beyond any shadow of doubt that the very best seeker small group leaders not only know how to ask key, provocative questions but, even more than that, understand how to truly listen to the hearts and souls of seekers.
Since listening is a skill that needs to be intentionally cultivated and utilized ? and for most of us, not something that happens naturally or without much effort ? here are several basic skills that, if developed, will help you become a better listener. Think of these suggestions as a starting point in your mastery of the art of listening. Engage the Listener Eliminate any distractions that prevent you from really listening to your group members. Put yourself in the right frame of mind and let your body communicate that you are fully engaged to truly listen. Be attentive and eager. Give good eye contact to speakers, facing them squarely and looking genuinely interested to hear what they have to say. Give an approving smile or nod as each person shares. Verbal affirmation gives seekers confidence and helps draw them out more. Making comments like “Yes,” “That makes sense,” “I understand,” and “That’s helpful” can be great encouragement to them.
The book Lead Out explains that “President Kennedy made you think he had nothing else to do except ask you questions and listen, with extraordinary concentration, to your answer. You knew that for the time being he had blotted out both the past and the future for you.” Listen like that.
Listen with Your Eyes
Communication researchers estimate that only between 7 and 10 percent of what a person communicates is expressed in words; 30 to 38 percent is conveyed in sounds of the voice, such as inflection, rate, and volume; and 55 to 60 percent is represented in body language. As you listen, observe the body posture, facial expressions, and gestures of your friends. Pay attention to their voice quality, which may give additional meaning and understanding to the words you hear. Nonverbal communication is sometimes difficult to interpret, so be careful about drawing conclusions too quickly. In some cases it’s appropriate and necessary to ask for clarification about the significance of any nonverbal cues. I remember, in one group discussion, picking up on a seeker’s lack of eye contact. She just didn’t seem herself. When I asked if everything was all right, this group member told the rest of us about a painful loss she had recently experienced. As a group, we were then able to offer words of encouragement and even support her in a short time of prayer.
Listen with Your Heart
Try to discern what emotions you’re picking up from those in your group. Remember that feelings are not always easy to determine, so be cognizant that your judgments might be inaccurate. Encourage your group members to share their feelings by asking reflection questions. Often people are not aware enough of their own feelings to know how to express them, so your questions may aid them tremendously in discovering how they really feel. But in any case, try to understand what emotions are being communicated behind the words expressed.
Interrupting communicates that what you have to say is much more important that what the other person is saying. It’s a habit worth breaking. When you interrupt, you reveal that you are thinking more about your response than anything else. Did you know that some people save their most important idea until the end of their response? If you interrupt someone before he or she is finished, you may well miss the most significant point! On very rare occasions you might need to rein in someone heading into a long tangent, but for the vast majority of the time, it is extremely important to avoid interrupting the speaker. The only time I interrupt someone is to stop another person from interruption by saying something like “Hold on just a second, please. Let’s hear the rest of what was being said.”
Silence Is Golden
Don’t be afraid of silence. Once you’ve put a question out there, the best thing to do is patiently wait for group members to respond. Keep in mind that people are most likely thinking about how they might answer. Your ability to wait and let the group members think long enough to formulate good responses demonstrates your care and concern. And be aware that the signals you send during the silence will greatly influence how the rest of your group feels. If you become uncomfortable and nervous about the silence, your group will react accordingly. Simply wait it out. If, however, the silence grows unbearably long, you may be able to prompt a response by restating the question or asking in what way the question was a little unclear. Sometimes a little humor, like “Don’t all jump in at once, now!” can serve to put everyone at ease. Including you!
Use Follow-up Questions
While your original question should be planned ahead of time, followup questions cannot be preplanned ? they must come to you in the moment. Lee-Thorp describes follow-up questions this way: “Once the discussion ball is in the air, secondary or guiding questions keep it moving. They build on the primary question so the discussion resembles a good tennis match (serve, return, volley, volley, volley) instead of a dull one (serve, point; serve, point; serve, point).” These questions flow out of the discussion at hand and take on many different forms. For example, if you sense that someone in the group has more to add after they finish responding, you may want to follow up with that person by asking something like “Did you have anything else to add?” Or you can move on to others, asking, “What do the rest of you think?” or “Does anyone have a different response?” Do your best to link what was previously stated to your next question. Even articulating some of the same words or phrases that members used will create a sense of acceptance and continuity within your group. When someone responds with a short answer, a good follow-up question like “Can you tell us more?” might be the only nudge the person needs to elaborate. When someone responds with a lengthy reply, ask that person or someone else in the group to rephrase or summarize what was said, so everyone is clear. The idea here is to value each group member enough to really understand what he or she is saying. But as you ask clarifying questions, remember to be careful not to put people on the defensive. You don’t want them to think you are asking them to defend their position, when all you really want to do is more fully understand their point of view.
When All Is Said
While evangelism and apologetic training is very useful, it’s not the primary key to effectiveness in these group settings. What really makes a significant impact is demonstrating an authentic, caring, and understanding heart toward seekers by the way you listen.
Copyright © 2003 by Willow Creek Association Excerpt from Seeker Small Groups, by Garry Poole Published by Zondervan, Used with Permission