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How to Learn to Listen Well

September 4, 2020 • De Pree Journal

This little piece will offer an analogy for how to learn to listen so as to be transformed. Then it will offer some steps to help yourself and your congregation learn to listen well. The steps are these:

(1) establish rules to live by;

(2) practice living out those rules every chance you get;

(3) measure what matters;

(4) establish accountability; and

(5) start where you have jurisdiction.

But before we get to the steps, consider the following analogy.

When I went off to do my PhD at Yale, I was a poor writer. This was not just a suspicion on my part: I had the documentation to prove it. When I was in seminary, I did a research project that became part of a national study. They wanted to publish my research. The project was what got me into Yale. I was terribly proud—at least until I read the letter offering to publish my study. It said that the research was good but that the writing was so abysmal that they would pay for an editor to help me rewrite it. Ouch! So I arrived at Yale thoroughly intimidated and a bit embarrassed. Then it got worse. I discovered that each of my advisers had recently been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. I was in so much trouble.

Then I realized that it could work to my advantage. I made copies of everything that each of my advisors had written and began to take their writing apart. I talked to each of them about what made for good writing. Eventually I came up with four rules. I knew that if I could master those four rules, I would be a clear writer. (I’ll list my four rules at the end)

But knowing the rules was not enough. I had to learn to practice them. So every time I wrote something—an email, a memo, a sermon, or a note to my wife—I tried to practice the four rules.  Over the course of months, I got to the point where I felt good about my writing. In short, I discovered some rules and then assiduously tried to make them instinctive.

That takes us back to the question of how to learn to listen well. You can learn to listen well this way. Find some rules to live by, and then practice them every chance you get. Notice how this is a way of planting language in your own life. You water it regularly and ask God to make it bear fruit. Here are seven rules for listening well to the longings and losses of the people entrusted to your care.

Establish Rules to Live By

The rules for listening build on our long discussion in Chapter 3 on my book The Innovative Church (available here). The rules are as follows: (1) listen to the people entrusted to your care, (2) listen for longings and losses, (3) listen without wanting control, (4) listen across difference, (5) listen with empathy, (6) listen for the Big Lie, and (7) listen in order to be transformed.

Practice Every Chance You Get

For almost everyone, any week is full of opportunities to listen. You encounter people all the time. Perhaps you go to a meeting early and sit around with people before the meeting; use the time to start a conversation about longings and losses. When you sit with your spouse or kids at the dinner table, practice listening without wanting control. Perhaps you run into acquaintances in line at Starbucks and can think of them as people entrusted to your care, tumbleweeds that have blown into your life. If you end up next to another dad while waiting for your daughter’s soccer game to start, practice listening long enough that you can hear a Big Lie. Or perhaps you run into someone near the copy machine at work; practice seeing if you can listen to them long enough to hear something that transforms you. Use every opportunity to practice listening.

Instead of talking about the weather with those you meet, ask them about something that you think might matter to them: their kids, their parents, their vacation, their hobbies—anything that gets them telling stories about things that make a difference to them. Then make a point to remember what you hear; that makes the next conversation easier. For example, if someone shares about a medical concern or speaks about ailing parents, take the time to remember so that you can ask them about it the next time you see them. If you make it a priority in every encounter, it will eventually become a habit—a way of seeing the world, a way of seeing each person you encounter as potentially a person entrusted to your care.

We can summarize the last few paragraphs in three steps: (1) start where it is safe, (2) look for ways to listen, and (3) keep what you hear (write it down, type it into your phone).

Measure What Matters

There is a saying, “What gets measured gets done.” If you are serious about learning to develop a cultivated instinct like listening, you need to quantify the work you want to do in order to get better. For example, if you want to get stronger, you might say, “I will add ten pushups a week until I can do one hundred of them,” or “I will do yoga twice a week.” Do not accept good intentions (as if talking about listening will make you a good listener).39 And do not accept a substitute for the practice of listening.40 You want to measure how often you have tried to implement the rules you created for yourself. For listening, these are some metrics you might consider: the number of people you listened to and the number of stories you collected.

Establish Accountability

The best way to establish accountability is to make a commitment to someone you trust, preferably someone who has some kind of authority with you. It could be a friend or a coworker. It could be someone who works for you—that is, someone you do not want to disappoint. But it works best if you do it with your boss. Here’s how you might go about it.

Start by writing out how listening to the people entrusted to your care is crucial to the work you need to do (write it out so that you can show it to someone). You may need to be explicit about which people are entrusted to your care. Once you have a clear sense of how listening is crucial, make an appointment with your boss. At that appointment, explain that you want to become a better listener because listening is crucial to your job. Then propose two metrics for measuring your progress as you practice listening: people and stories. Commit to meeting with at least two people a week for the specific purpose of listening in order to be transformed (although you may not tell them that is why you are meeting). Commit to gathering at least two stories of longing and loss from each person. And commit to writing the stories down so that you don’t forget them. Then ask your boss to hold your feet to the fire. The next time you meet your boss, come with a sample report: how many people, how many stories (only count the ones you write down), and a write-up of the best story you heard about longing and loss. Then repeat that process until such listening becomes second nature.

A common retort at this point is “but I don’t have time to do that.” That is like saying that you don’t have time to treat your people as anything but a stereotype, that you don’t have time to listen to the most important things in the lives of the people whom God calls you to serve, and that you don’t have time to do something that you just established is crucial to your job. You may need to negotiate what you will leave undone in order to become good at listening. But you cannot neglect listening to the people entrusted to your care.

Start Where You Can

If you are a boss, go over this material with your team. Commit to doing it together. Hold each other accountable. Inspire each other by sharing what you have learned (respecting, of course, any confidentialities).

If the idea of approaching others intimidates you, then start where you can. Start with family or friends. Ask people if they would be willing to help you out on a project you are doing. Then slowly expand to include more and more people in an ever-broadening circle.

One more thing. Sometimes people ask how they can do this if they do not have authority in their congregation or if their congregation as a whole does not listen well. Then build what Jim Collins calls a “pocket of greatness.”41 If you are a missions pastor, make sure you and your team listen well. If you are a small-group leader, start by listening to your small group; then mobilize them to listen to the people entrusted to their care. If you are a computer programmer sitting in a cubicle, then listen well to the people who share your office. Every grouping can build a pocket of greatness.

So there you have it: five steps you can take to learn to listen well.

  1. Establish rules to live by.
  • Listen to the people entrusted to your care.
  • Listen for longings and losses.
  • Listen without wanting control.
  • Listen across difference.
  • Listen with empathy.
  • Listen for the Big Lie.
  • Listen in order to be transformed.
  1. Practice every chance you get.
  2. Measure what matters.
  3. Establish accountability. Make a commitment to someone you trust.
  4. Start where you can.

Scott’s Four Rules for Writing

  1. Every sentence has a main idea, but only one.
  2. Every paragraph has a main idea, but only one.
  3. Every paper (or blog) has a main idea, but only one.
  4. And, the main idea of each paragraph must relate directly to the main idea of the paper.

I teach these ideas to my students and I grade them on their ability to embody them.

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