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Engaged Listening: A Key Leadership Skill

“Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.” (Psalm 116:2)

God is the great listener. Even though He knows the movement of every quark, neutrino and Higgs Boson in the universe, yet when we speak or pray to Him we feel as though we have His undivided attention. Unlike us, He’s never too hurried, too distracted or too self-obsessed to carefully listen to us. He hears His mother’s plea at the wedding in Cana of Galilee; He pauses to listen to the woman at the well; even in the moment when humanly He might be expected to be totally incapable of listening to another, He hears the plea of the good thief on the cross.

How much we depend upon God listening to us! And how wonderful it is to have a good friend, a confessor, a spouse, a leader or a priest who listens to us. Effective leadership requires advanced listening skills. Engaged and active listening is hearing what people are not saying but mean to say. It is one of the most important skills we can have. How well we listen has a major impact on our effectiveness as a leader or a manager. It bears directly upon the quality of our relationships with others.

  • We listen to affirm the intrinsic value of the person who is speaking to us.

  • We listen in emulation of how God listens to us.

  • We listen to obtain information and knowledge.

  • We listen to understand.

  • We listen for enjoyment.

  • We listen to learn.

Most of us are not good listeners. Research suggests that we only remember between 10 percent and 15 percent of what we hear. And the inverse is true as well, that when we speak to others, they may remember only a small percentage of what we say. Clearly, we can all benefit by improving our listening skill. A leader or a manager will improve their productivity, as well as their ability to influence, persuade and negotiate. We’ll avoid unnecessary conflict and misunderstandings.

Finally, engaged, active listening promotes envisioning – that essential task of leadership, for if parish leadership does not work at envisioning the future of the parish in light of the mission of the church, who will do this? Authentic engaged and active listening can bring new considerations to bear, open up new avenues for the imagination, test assumptions and provide an alternative to the spiritual myopia that afflicts all humans. Envisioning the parish five years down the line allows leadership to grasp what changes need to occur, what priorities need to be asserted, what funding will be required, etc. And if it is a compelling vision consistent with the mission of the church, eloquently and lovingly articulated, it can have the effect of getting most people in the parish marching in the same direction.

Becoming an Active Listener

There are five key elements of active listening. They all help to ensure that the other person is heard, and that the other person knows that they are understood and accepted even if we do not concur with their point of view.

1. Pay Attention

Give the speaker undivided attention and acknowledge the message. Recognize that non-verbal communication also “speaks” loudly.

  • Look at the speaker directly.

  • Put aside distracting thoughts.

  • Don’t mentally prepare a rebuttal!

  • Avoid being distracted by environmental factors. For example, side conversations, checking the mobile, etc.

  • “Listen” to (observe) the speaker’s body language.

2. Show the speaker that they are being heard

Use body language and gestures to convey attentiveness.

  • Nod occasionally.

  • Smile and use other facial expressions.

  • Make sure the listener’s body language conveys openness to listening.

  • Encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal comments like “yes”, and “uh huh” and “I see”.

3. Provide Feedback

Personal filters, assumptions, judgments, and beliefs can distort what is heard. The listener’s role is to understand what is being said. This requires us to reflect what is being said and ask questions.

  • Reflect what has been said by paraphrasing. “What I’m hearing is,” and “Sounds like you are saying,” are great ways to reflect back.

  • Ask questions to clarify certain points. “What do you mean when you say.” “Is this what you mean?”

  • Summarize the speaker’s comments periodically.

Suggestion: If the listener finds themselves reacting emotionally to what someone is saying, it is important that they say so, and ask for more information: “Perhaps I did not understand what is being said. I find myself taking what you said personally. What I heard you say is ………..; is this what you meant?”

4. Defer Judgment

Interrupting is a waste of time. It frustrates the speaker and limits full understanding of the message.

  • Allow the speaker to finish each point before asking questions.

  • Don’t interrupt with counter arguments.

5. Respond Appropriately

Active listening is a model for respect and understanding. The listener gains information and perspective. Nothing is added by attacking the speaker.

  • Be candid, open, and honest in responding.

  • Assert opinions respectfully.

  • Treat the other person with respect, charity and courtesy.

Key Points

Be deliberate in listening and remember that the goal is to truly hear what the other person is saying. Set aside all other thoughts and behaviors and concentrate on the message. Ask questions, reflect, and paraphrase to ensure that the message is correctly understood.

Listen to others as we believe God listens to us.

Note: all parish priests and executive directors have a few people (sometimes more than a few) who desperately love to talk and will go on and on processing their anxieties or loneliness with another person or just talking to be talking. These are sometimes people who “take a listener hostage” and show little or no interest in genuine conversation. They talk “at” the listener rather than “with” the listener. They do not register how the other person is responding to their chatter or they display blithe indifference to signals from the listener that the talking needs to come to a conclusion. This is where the listener is encouraged to practice self care. Giving oneself away to the detriment of other parish priorities or family time may be the first step toward self-depletion and eventual burnout. Properly addressing this in an honest, loving, humble conversation with the “talking hostage taker” is actually an act of loving honesty to the talker, perhaps giving them information that allows them to modify a social behavior that actually leads to alienating people rather than gaining the connection they seek.


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