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Focus on Leadership: Learning to Listen

As leaders it can become easy to get distracted by the noise in our own heads. We spend a lot of time thinking and praying about the mission and work of our ministries, so we will also have lots of ideas about how to fulfill our mission. One of the key skills that will help us actually do our work well is setting aside our own thoughts and ideas to be able to truly listen to what others are saying.

Listening well matters because we are not the only stakeholders in our ministry work. Those we are serving and serving with care about the outcomes of our work as much as we do. And they may have ideas that work with or are even better than our own. But when we are passionate about something, we can be so eager to put our own ideas out into the world that we don’t make space in our conversations and in our minds for other possibilities. We may miss something amazing as we get caught up in our own passion for the work.

Imagine entering conversations without foregone conclusions about the outcomes, without the need to spend more time talking than listening, and with the idea that every person in the conversation is necessary to make it all work.

With no preconceived outcomes we can dream as big as we need. As ideas pop into your own mind, you don’t need to shout them out, but you can take down some quick notes so you can keep focusing on what others are saying. Encourage others to do the same. Share when it is your turn. If you are the head of a team or project, think carefully about who is invited to the conversations we are having. If you approach a conversation with the intention of valuing each voice, you are more likely to listen carefully to what they are saying. All of these things will not only make us better listeners, but do more collaborative and creative work. And that kind of work perfectly fits our Presbyterian ordination vows, which guides our leadership.

When we think about good listeners, we have no better example that Jesus himself. Jesus was so connected with the people he met that he not only answered their spoken needs, but their unspoken ones. We may not be as good at this as Jesus, but with practice we can improve our empathy, our care for community that guides us to listen to the people we need to be listening to, and the ability to together craft our words and our work to best answer the needs that have been expressed. And it will allow us to ask better questions when we need to understand better or more fully what someone is saying rather than assuming we totally get it.

Listening makes us better leaders not only because we will do what we are called to do in better ways, but also because it shows we care about those we are serving. And when we show we care, people are more likely to follow.

a woman and a man listening to another man speaking with a view of hills and houses in background

Focus on Leadership: Listening

We live in a time where there is a lot of noise – information coming at us through news, fake news, social media, in audio, video and written forms. But how much are we actually absorbing? Quite a few studies have been done about confirmation bias – that we are more likely to listen to, agree with and pass on narratives that fit our predetermined understanding of the world. Whether or not those narratives are true or false. If something fits our idea of how the world works, we fit it into the picture. If it challenges our world view, we reject it.

And yet…during Advent we are preparing to celebrate an event does not fit into any understanding of the world. A poor, unmarried woman pregnant with a child who is both fully human and fully divine. A child who is fully divine, yet lives as a human, grows and learns, falls down, has bad days and good days, just like any human being. A child who will grow up to save the world, not in the way that past heroes, or any heroes to come, had conquered, but by showing that all the powers of the world could not defeat God. No humiliation, no silence, not even death could stop the Word of God from spreading, in stories, in actions, in transformed lives.

This event, the birth of Christ is celebrated each year not as a memorial, but as an ongoing reality. Though we talk about Jesus changing our lives as a caterpillar changes into a butterfly, our change is not a one-time thing. Just as Jesus’ ancestors and Jesus’ disciples found their worlds being turned upside down not once, but many times, so too will ours if we continue to read, listen to and think about Scripture, pray, and connect with people in faith throughout our lives. How we think, how we live, how we behave will all be challenged again and again.

Our faith calls us to be open to these challenges and these transformations. Ecclesiastes talks about this so well. Life is compared to a vapor, which is often interpreted to mean that it holds little weight or meaning, but which is probably better understood to mean that we should not hold too tightly to anything. There is a season for everything. We have to be willing to let go of even things that we have always known as true or have worked for us in the past. It may not be true now or in the future. It doesn’t help us to hold onto it.

The biggest thing we have to let go of is assuming we know how others feel or think or what their experiences are. NPR political reporters reflecting on their work, especially in the 2016 election season, said the biggest thing that helped them do good work is to ask questions without assuming what the answers would be. Then they actually listened to people answer those questions and tell their stories.

If we want to change how we respond to each other, if we want to continue to be challenged and changed through our faith, we can start by being good listeners. And hopefully as we model good listening, others will feel heard, and want to learn how to listen as well.