How many times have you heard a version of the phrase, “God gave you one mouth and two ears so you can listen more than you speak”? James, the half-brother of Jesus, may have been the first one to allude to this when he penned James 1:19, “My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.”
Let’s face it. We all want to be heard. We want God to hear our prayers. We want our children to hear us and obey us. We want our followers to “hear” us on social media. We want colleagues to listen and embrace our ideas. But, as much as we all want someone else to hear from us, good leaders must learn the discipline of listening to others and sometimes being silent. We live in a culture where we often hear others tell us their stories, but few people are truly listening. And when you become a leader who can listen, you can make a difference in today’s noisy culture where everyone seems to be talking more than hearing.
And while I’m not an expert in counseling, I know enough to realize a good counselor is a good listener. They ask good questions. They don’t insert their opinions without understanding the person who is talking. They don’t interrupt, and they know the power of being present. As leaders, we could all learn some of their techniques. Here are a few that all of us can incorporate in our own leadership, whether you are a ministry leader, a leader in your home, or a leader in your work.
First, we learn to listen when we take a genuine interest in others and engage in a conversation with them. In recent years, I’ve noticed it’s harder to engage with others, especially if you are sitting next to them on a plane! Yet you can’t really be a good listener if you don’t talk to others. It doesn’t have to be intrusive, but more inquisitive. For instance, are they wearing the logo of a sports team? Do they have an interesting tattoo? In other words, what’s an obvious point of conversation? Although we live in Tennessee, my husband will always be a fan of the Oklahoma Sooners, and he proudly wears clothing or hats with OU emblazoned on them. I can’t tell you the number of times people have either started a conversation or asked him a question about his alma mater. I, on the other hand, have a unique turquoise laptop bag I carry to events. Many people have either started a conversation by making a comment about the bag or asking where I purchased it.
Second, establish rapport with the other person. Once you’ve initiated a conversation, consider your physical stance and your eye contact. Stand at least two to four feet away so you aren’t in someone’s personal space, and consider whether a handshake is appropriate. Make eye contact with a casual gaze and avoid looking at their mouth or their forehead. Don’t stare directly, but eye contact should be about 60-70% of the time so the person knows you are listening. Exchange names and focus on listening to their name rather than thinking about your own name. Affirm their name by repeating it or by asking more about their name so you can remember it. For instance, ask them if it is a family name, if it has a special meaning, or find a connection that will help you remember. People like for you to remember their names, so use it when you can. And if you forget, be honest and ask them again. When you finish the conversation, make sure you break rapport by affirming them and positioning your body in a different direction.
Third, listen to someone’s story and ask good questions. People speak at a slower rate than your brain can process, so it takes a lot of focus to stay with the story. Too many times we are often thinking about our own story or what we are going to say in response rather than truly listening. The writer of Proverbs must have experienced this when he wrote, “The one who gives an answer before he listens—this is foolishness and disgrace for him” (18:13). Or as leadership guru Simon Sinek once said, “Listening is not understanding the words of the question asked, listening is understanding why the question was asked in the first place.”
Instead of focusing on your response, listen for different kinds of information so you can ask your next question. Did they give you something extra, or did they delete something that you need to complete the story? Remember to ask open-ended questions so they are talking more than you are. And if you feel you aren’t listening well, paraphrase what you think you heard and confirm it with them. Use phrases like, “Tell me more about that,” “What was that like for you?” and “What happened next?” Observe their body language and consider opportunities the Lord may open up to share the gospel or to pray for someone. Most people are not offended if you share that you would like to pray for them and, if possible, pray at that moment.
Learn the art of listening and the power of restraining your own words. Proverbs 17:27-28 says, “The one who has knowledge restrains his words, and one who keeps a cool head is a person of understanding. Even a fool is considered wise when he keeps silent—discerning, when he seals his lips.”
Kelly D. King is the Manager of Magazines/Devotional Publishing and Women’s Ministry Training for Lifeway Christian Resources. She is the author of Ministry to Women: The Essential Guide for Leading Women in the Local Church. You can hear Kelly at Lifeway’s You Lead events that are held in several cities around the country or listen to her co-host the Marked Podcast with Elizabeth Hyndman.