Steven Madsen is an attorney who lives with his wife and son-on-the-way in the Washington, D.C. area. He has served in many church callings including seminary teacher; Elders Quorum president; gospel doctrine teacher; youth Sunday School teacher; ward choir director; and primary music leader.
Active, deep listening may be the most important skill any leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can develop. Unfortunately, it may also be the skill on which we receive the least amount of formal church training or guidance. We are more than adequately trained on how to preach, testify, proclaim, teach, etc. However, in my experience, active, deep listening is an undervalued and sparingly used skill that may do as much or more to help people come unto Christ than these other important skills.
A Leader Is Not Limited to Someone with a Specific Calling
First, a threshold question: Who qualifies as a leader? Brené Brown’s definition has always resonated with me. She defines a leader as someone who
“takes responsibility for finding the potential in people…and who has the courage to develop that potential.”
In a gospel context, a leader is not limited to someone with a specific calling, or someone with a specific title, or someone who has a seat on the ward council. It is anyone who desires to help their brothers and sisters come closer to Jesus Christ and reach their true potential as children of God. Hopefully, that includes just about all of us.
The Understanding Gap
A generalized struggle on the part of church leadership to employ active, deep listening is borne out by recent research. In survey results summarized in his recent book Bridges: Ministering to Those who Question, David Ostler conducted separate surveys of:
- Local church leaders; and
- Individuals who had undergone or are undergoing a faith crisis
When asked to identify factors contributing to an individual entering into a faith crisis, more than 90% of local leaders surveyed said “being offended” was a contributing factor as well as more than 83% who said the same about individuals “not wanting to live the commandments.” When those experiencing or having experienced a faith crisis were asked the same thing, only 19% agreed “being offended” was a contributing factor, and only 9% agreed that “not wanting to live the commandments” played a role.
These survey results highlight an “understanding gap” between, at the least, this subset of individuals and local church leaders. If true listening and understanding are taking place, the responses of the two groups should be much closer to matching. Let me be clear: these results do not demonstrate that local leaders don’t care for and love the people they serve. What they might demonstrate is that church leaders have work to do to more effectively listen to and empathize with those they serve.
There appears to be some recognition of this reality from general church leadership. Addressing the church’s relationship to our gay brothers and sisters, President M. Russell Ballard said,
“[Latter-day Saint] leaders, along with the rank and file, need to listen to and understand what LGBT members are feeling and experiencing. We must do better than we have in the past until all feel they have a spiritual home…a place to worship and serve the Lord” (emphasis added).
This admonition to listen and understand better than we have in the past should encompass all our ministering and leadership efforts.
Listening In a Higher and Holier Way
Help is on the way, in the form of revelation from a living prophet. President Nelson has called the church to refocus on the second great commandment (to “love thy neighbor as thyself”) as the motivating force behind higher, holier ministering. Inherent in this kind of ministering is the challenge to listen in a higher, holier way. How can we truly love someone we don’t know or understand? How can we know or understand someone unless we listen to them?
How do we listen in a higher, holier way? I hope to illuminate some potential answers to this question with more questions. These questions can be considered part of a spiritual aural autopsy.
- When I’m speaking to or meeting with someone, do I spend the majority of the time listening and understanding or being prescriptive?
- In conversations or meetings, is my mind generally focused on what I am going to say next to help them, or is it generally focused on what I need to ask them to help me better understand them?
- When someone shares something with me that makes me uncomfortable, do I respond by attempting to make myself feel better or by momentarily setting my feelings aside so I can focus on empathy?
- Do I generally assume that when someone comes to me with a problem or issue they are looking for my advice on how to solve their problem or issue?
- Do I maintain eye contact when someone is speaking to me?
- What does my body language generally communicate to someone when they are speaking with me? Do I communicate openness and warmth or emotional or mental aloofness?
- Are the questions I ask open-ended (unlike this one)?
- Do I offer platitudes (usually designed to make me feel more comfortable) in response to someone’s pain or struggle?
- Do I, inadvertently or intentionally, take the focus off someone else’s experience by steering the conversation or analogizing to a similar experience that happened to me or someone I know?
- Am I tolerant of silence in a conversation? Do I rush to fill silence out of a sense of awkwardness?
- How frequently do I communicate that I understood what someone is saying by repeating it back to them or asking for further clarification?
- Do I remove distractions from my surroundings (phone, television, etc.) so I can focus intently on the person I am speaking with?
- Can I answer any of the preceding questions with any certainty?
These questions are not intended to be exhaustive, nor does one have to master each of them before being “certified” a good listener. Most likely we fall short in one or more of these ways. As long as we are never satisfied with our efforts to minister through listening in a higher, holier way we will be the instruments of mercy the Lord wants us to be. It is in the striving to do better and be better that we succeed.
Ideally, all of us can seek to improve our listening skills such that we can experience true connection with those we lead. Brené Brown (can you tell I’m a fan?) defines connection
“as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
Imagine the transformational power that could exist in our wards, branches, and stakes if this kind of connective energy existed to a greater degree!
Most often, when those we lead come to us with their burden, doubt, question, or struggle they are seeking validation and affirmation that they are enough to successfully pursue the path they already know they need to walk. They don’t need our advice, our judgment, or our chastisement. They need our love. A powerful way to communicate love is to intentionally set aside your feelings to inhabit the emotional space of another person by deeply listening to them.
Deep listening leads to healing. This process is poignantly described by Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk:
“Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person…You listen only with one purpose: to help him or her empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Because you know that listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less. If you want to help him to correct his perception, you wait for another time. For now, you don’t interrupt. You don’t argue. If you do, he loses his chance. You just listen with compassion and help him to suffer less. One hour like that can bring transformation and healing.”
May we all seek to minister in a higher, holier way by deeply, actively, and intentionally listening so that we can more fully facilitate healing and true connection.