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