How to Become a Better Listener in 4 Steps

Ministry leaders, and pastors specifically, tend to think they are either terrible listeners or they’re the best around.

Those that think they’re great listeners are usually drawn to pastoral care. They’re at their best at a hospital bedside or over a cup of coffee. Another “great listener” type is the pastor who’s at home around strangers. Hospitality oozes out of them as they make guests, new members, or the person in line at the store with them feel as though they’re the only person in the world.

Then we all know those pastors who smile with their face, but their eyes give away that they’d rather be anywhere else. Some pastors are so bad at listening that they seem to boast about it, lowering expectations or even trying to get out of certain listening-intensive tasks (like pastoral care).

But what if most pastors are actually both great and terrible listeners?

Author Simon Sinek shared that he is working on becoming a better listener with friends and family (at the 40:50 mark in this interview). Professionally, listening is one of his strengths, but personally, he was terrible. And he would use his identity as a great professional listener to disregard feedback from those close to him—until he realized that listening is contextual.

So, those amazing pastors who can remember the anecdote Ruth told about her grandmother in a Bible study 2 years ago may seem like a brick wall to staff or key volunteers who interact with them as the leader of a team or organization.

And those pastors who call everyone “friend” or “buddy” because names are like vapor in the wind may be incredible preachers or visionary leaders because they’re good at picking up on themes, questions, and trends rather than details.

So, how do we all go about becoming better listeners?

1. Identify your listening contexts.

As you go through a typical day and/or week, write down all of the different types of hats you wear and people with whom you interact. Likely you’ll have groups like friends and family, general church members, church leaders and key volunteers, church staff, or small group members.

2. Describe your listening contexts.

Are you expected to be an active or passive listener? Does the situation call for a response, a synthesized rephrasing, or just acknowledgment that you have listened? Is this part of an on-going relationship or is this an infrequent or one-time interaction? Are you emotionally invested in this relationship, and which emotions tend to arise?

3. Rate your ablities in each context.

Look for patterns that help you identify your tendencies. Simon realized that, as a leadership consultant, he was best at the practical, non-emotional listening required to diagnose problems and offer advice. In long-term relationships with heavy emotional investment, he was a poor listener (which he later identified as a defense mechanism).

4. Use your listening identity to help you, not define you.

Don’t use your strengths in one context to brush off legitimate concerns in other areas. If there seems to be a disconnect, ask the person or group about their expectations. Also, seek out techniques or even tools that will help you in situations that are growth areas. For example, carry a small note pad and pen to record information and then process it later in a way that better suits your strengths. As an added benefit, jotting things down will give a visual cue that you’re listening.

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