Effective ministry requires learning the fine art of listening. Jesus specialized in this. He not only listened, He also understood. He was a master at entering into a person's world through competent listening and powerful communication.
If we hope to follow Jesus' example, where do we begin? Undoubtedly certain personality types have a deeper propensity for listening. Yet I believe listening is a skill that can be learned, developed and honed. With that in mind, here are a few tips for improving your listening skills.
1. Be fully present when engaging in conversation. True listening is the art of fully engaging someone—that is, being fully present during the conversation. Such practice is rare in today's world. Offering your full attention and presence in a conversation is a powerful force that has life-changing consequences for the person being engaged. It demands a measure of self-denial, as well as learning and much practice.
In truth, listening is ministry. When you fully engage in conversation with others, they're not only heard, they also feel more affirmed, valued and supported. When total engagement is not offered, however, the opposite is true. So are you fully present in your conversations?
2. Listen, don't solve. As a trained life coach, I've learned that the No. 1 distraction to true listening is the urge to offer solutions. This often distorts communication because it superimposes your agenda upon the conversation and sidetracks from the real issues. Pastors have a natural desire to help (read: fix) people. But what usually happens is that we create people who become dependent upon us to do their thinking, thus creating followers not leaders.
When was the last time you listened in a supportive role? Can you imagine the impact this would have on your teen, spouse, or anyone who needs a listening ear? Listen, merely to support.
3. Listen with your body. Active listening involves letting the other person know you are totally engaged by sending signals with your body language. Offer a frequent nod or lean into the conversation while maintaining eye contact. Conversation is a two-way street; you either squelch or encourage it with your body language. People aren't ignorant; they can read between the lines. Do you give clues to others that you are listening? Be an active listener.
4. Learn to listen intuitively. Look for red flags in the conversation, signals that raise concerns. It could be as simple as a hesitation in the conversation, or as pronounced as tears or heated emotions. Whatever invokes something inside the person could possibly be an intuition indicator.
Intuition indicators usually need to be explored. They are clues, often leading the way to an area that needs processing or probing. I've learned that if you listen long enough, people generally will reveal areas of pain or need. Often it is in a covert manner.
We must learn to spot the clues. If we don't, we'll always catch ourselves saying, "I never saw that coming." Have you learned to listen intuitively? Most haven't. Author and lecturer Margaret J. Wheatley was on to something big when she said: "I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again. Simple, honest, human conversation." Could it really be that simple? Whether it is or not, powerful conversations do have the potential to change lives.
A certified professional coach and trainer, John Chasteen is also the assistant dean of Southwestern Christian University Graduate School in Bethany, Okla. You can read his blog at heycoachjohn.com.