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The art of active and empathetic listening can change how your small group members share and allow themselves to go deeper.

My wife and I are currently leading a six week Marriage Built to Last small group.  We enjoy this kind of group because we know how hard marriage can be sometimes.  It takes work.  I am thankful because my wife and I have a great marriage.  But it didn't come easy.  We each had to face our own demons and baggage we brought into the relationship.  Not easy, but important nonetheless.  It pays off big time.


Probably one of the most valuable lessons in any marriage series or enrichment course is the section on communication.  Most people don't deal with conflict well or fight well in most relationships, not just marriage.  And one of the biggest reasons for that is the inability to listen well.  Especially when it comes to conflict, we're usually too busy thinking about how we will respond or why we're right and the other person is wrong, to even consider the other person's reasoning. When we talk about this in our marriage group everyone is nodding in affirmation.  Our ears shut down about a quarter of the way through the other person's response while we try to consider a rebuttal which then is only partially reliable because we didn't finish listening nor  did we really hear what they've said.  And that's how arguments ensue.


Being an effective listener starts with self-reflection realizing what your strengths and weaknesses are when it comes to conflict; what is your typical response? Your initial gut reaction? How did you and your family grow up dealing with conflict?, etc.  Self understanding and ownership of self is half the battle in dealing with conflict and especially learning to move toward active and empathetic listening. 


One exercise that I have used for years and years both in youth and adult ministry is the UnGame (there are many versions. All you need are the cards not the board and I suggest not the Christian version).  The game, which is not really a game, forces you to listen to the other person with out giving  a response even if you totally and emphatically disagree. We only use it from time to time usually to begin a meeting and only for  a couple of rounds.   As a leader in the small group setting I have been known to ask someone to wait until the other person has finished before cutting in and responding ,and challenge everyone to really listen to one another. 


A worthy challenge for leaders in a small group is to encourage group members to ask clarification questions to something someone has said.  Active listening allows for people to hear more than what is being said perhaps to something bigger underneath.  Sensitive clarification questions can help the person in their thought process really say what they're trying to say.  As listeners we shouldn't assume that we know exactly  what they're saying until they've clarified it for their self.


Empathetic listening is NOT, "Oh, I went through something just like that… here's what I did…"  Leaders, shut it down right there!  Real empathetic listening is acknowledging the feelings that come with what is being said, "Oh, that must have been frustrating (add adjective here).  It tells the person that you are really hearing them and especially associating with their feelings.  That opens a huge door for people to share deeper.


The value of active listening in a small group:

  • Helps minimize conflict
  • Creates a safe place to share difficult concerns
  • Creates a space where those in conflict can grow through self-discovery
  • Develops healthy gatekeeping, desiring to hear from everyone in the group
  • Deepens prayer for one another by picking up on underlying themes.
  • Takes discussions in the group to a deeper more exposing and transparent level.

Any other thoughts on the value of listening?  What has been your experience in fostering active and empathetic listening in  your group?


'til next time




You are so right that most of our communication is non-verbal.  I have a little pie chart in my office that I show couples who I counsel and it's in the marriage series I mentioned as well.  It breaks down communication into three areas; Body Language and Facial Expressions, Tone of Voice, and Words.  Experts say  that we communicate 55% through our body language and facial expressions, about 38% through our tone of voice and only 7% through our words.

In active listening we need to consider all those areas.  Listening encompasses a whole lot more than just words.  But my point is that we don't listen very well as a general practice.  We tend to miss the words and are poor at asking clarification questions to get past some of the other body and tone communication that's going on.  We tend to just respond.

Sharon T. Ellens on March 17, 2011

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Hi Ken --

If it makes you feel better, not *all* women are better at non-verbals, etc.  I, for one, have had a lot to learn when it comes to listening well, and responding to the message behind the words.

PS, when I peruse various Network threads, I often see your name.  Your insights are always worth reading, and often challenge me to think differently.  So thanks for that!

-- Sharon

I have found praying together really connects people on a deeper level...  this discussion started with expanding on the communication concept from a ''marriage built to last" study, and a very interesting and powerful statistic related to that is, that for couples that pray together on a consistent basis (like 10 minutes a day) the divorce rate drops from 1 in 2 to 1 in 1150...that's a very powerful reason to spend time praying together, especially with your spouse.

One wife shared recently, that the more time her husband spends in prayer, the more she likes that can be taken many different ways ;), but we do know, prayer does make us better believers, not better than the next person, but it makes us, individually, a better believer/person than where we would be without prayer.

I've sometimes wondered whether we are better listeners when we are tired, when we do not have the energy to respond or to try to "fix" things, so all we can do is listen and absorb.  :0)   So maybe there is a gift in being tired, sometimes. 

That's an interesting observation John.  For some that may be true.  But I know that when I'm tired I struggle to really actively listen.  Active listening makes me even more tired because my brain has to work so hard to really absorb.  But for some it may work.

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