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Humility and listening, part 2

Wednesday April 1 2015

Humility and listening, part 2

Historically, Christians have warned against two vices related to humility: false humility and pride. True humility involves avoiding those two opposite pitfalls. False humility or an excess of humility often results in an inability to serve God well because of an overly low view of the self and one’s gifts for service. An excess of humility can also lead to obsequiousness, excessive flattery, or co-dependent submission to others. This characteristic is sadly present in communities of faith when some individuals don’t think they have anything to contribute and are in awe of those who do contribute. False humility is often not just present in communities of faith, but also encouraged and validated.

I have a hunch that pride, the other vice related to humility, is also quite common in congregations, but it is usually masked. One of the masks is activity. A knee-jerk response in the midst of a problem or crisis is to do something, because it helps us feel better about ourselves. We love solving problems. A denominational official said to me in an interview, “I’m really good at strategy! My immediate response in most situations is to say, ‘Let’s put good ideas together and strategize!’” We like to do what we’re good at, and many of us are good at planning and action.

Another mask for pride is spiritual certitude. We think we know what the Bible says, what’s right and wrong, and what people inside and outside the church need. We know, therefore we don’t need to learn more. In order to speak God’s love and truth into this hurting world, we need greater understanding of what’s going on in people’s lives. We need the kind of humility that helps us know we always have something to learn.

One kind of listening that looks humble might be called pretend humility. Listeners sometimes say “I hear you,” “good idea,” or other affirmations when they are not taking in what the speaker is saying and have no interest in taking seriously anything they hear. Pretend humility can sometimes be identified by a paternalistic tone of voice, or by the fact that the platitude isn’t followed with any further comment or action. Sometimes pretend humility is quite confusing, because the speaker thinks the message has been received, while in reality the words are completely ignored.

Almost everyone has times when they feel they needto be right, need to be in control, and want to show competence. Almost everyone has moments when all they can summon up is a platitude in response to words they have no intention of taking seriously. Almost everyone has times when they feel anxious in conversations. We might feel anxious about the to-do list spinning around in our head or about the lunch we need to prepare in just a few minutes. We might feel stressed trying to find a moment in the flow of words to express our opinion or to ask an urgent question. We might long to fix another person’s painful problem, even though we know we can’t, and our deep concern for the other person and our inability to change their life for them creates tension in us.

What are the characteristics of listening when we have these emotions roiling around inside and we are unable to park them somewhere outside the conversation? In those times when we need to be right and want to be in control, in those times when we feel anxious, listening deeply does not come easily. We commonly stop listening in those situations.

 

Some additional resources on listening:

(During Lent I’m posting excerpts from my book on listening. If you’d like to receive an email when I put a post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Book  excerpt from The Power of Listening by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Rowman & Littlefield. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.)

Humility and listening

Friday March 27 2015

Humility and listening

Alison is a Presbyterian minister who has worked much of her career as a hospital chaplain. She described several obstacles to listening, beginning with the urge to be efficient and productive:

Listening isnot time efficient. Meetings at churches have deadlines. Maybe we need to map out a Sunday school curriculum today, but if God isn’t speaking today, we still need to decide. If we put off the decision because we don’t hear God’s voice today, we would have to meet again,and the youth director is just about to leaveon vacation.

She also noted that good listening requires an inner self-discipline that keeps distracting thoughts and emotions from impeding the listening process. “If you’re really listening, you can’t be always thinking about what you’ll say next. That’s hard,and it requires deep restraint. Andif you’re listening for God, you need to focus on listening, not on preparing your response.” This kind of self-control is difficult to achieve and requires a level of commitment and concentration that is hard to find in our busy, active congregational cultures.

Alison noted another necessary attitude. “Listening requires a posture of humility that isn’t ‘sexy.’ If you’re really going to hear God and others, you have to be open to not being right and to seeing something new. But you can’t hear God and others if you don’t have that attitude in some measure.”

She said countless brochures for conferences and speakers come across her desk, and she’s never seen a single one that focuses on humility. Humility, she noted, is not a trend. “I don’t see church leaders being fired up about humility. There are no big conferences, no programs. What’s ‘sexy’ now is emergent church and programs that promise quick results. Being humble isn’t an obvious thing and you don’t get any kudos for it.” Several inner convictions and attitudes make humility in listening more difficult to achieve, including thinking we already know answers and loving action and activity.

A youth worker said, “Youthink you know what someone thinks. Even if they’re talking, you can find yourself not listening because you assume you know.” A retired United Reformed Church minister attributed this listening obstacle to a lack of imagination. He cited Jesus’ healing miracles where Jesus enabled blind people to see and deaf people to hear. After the miracles, they were able to see and hear things they hadn’t previously perceived. He believes we need to cultivate a willingness to see and hear things we haven’t previously seen and heard.

Anna, like Alison, noted that she gets so many books and flyers that advocate specific programs. “‘Follow these ten steps,’ they all seem to be saying. That’s our model for growth, not listening to Godor listening to each other.”

            A children’s ministries director noted,

We want to be busy. It goes against the grain to slow down and create space for God to work.We’ve been trained that we’ve got a lot to do, so let’s get to it. In children’sand youth ministries, there’s so much pressure to keep functioning. All the programs are so valued. You have to have something every Sunday.

She believes an obstacle to listening to God and to others is the fear that I might have to change my plans. “What if God wants me to do something I don’t want to do? What if God nixes something I want to do?”

Humility is necessary in order to listen when we suspect we already know what the other person will say. Humility is necessary to lay aside battle positions with someone we know we disagree with. Humility is necessary to set aside what we think we know based on media accounts of what people outside the church think in order to listen to a specific individual’s beliefs, priorities and feelings. Humility is necessary to slow down our activities long enough to pay attention to the words and feelings of the people around us.

 

Some additional resources on listening:

(During Lent I’m posting excerpts from my book on listening. If you’d like to receive an email when I put a post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Book  excerpt from The Power of Listening by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Rowman & Littlefield. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.)

Listening wisely to people’s stories

Thursday March 19 2015

Listening wisely to people’s stories

Recently a friend of mine had an emergency surgery. On her second day home from the hospital, I phoned her. I asked if she had the time and energy to talk, and she said yes. So I asked her about the lead-up to the surgery. How did she decide to go to the emergency room? What happened there? What tests did they give her? I tried to keep her talking for a while by using those small sounds called minimal encouragers that indicate we are listening: “hmmm” and “wow.” I tried to reflect back what I heard, using brief phrases to keep her talking: “an ultrasound” and “your husband stayed with you.”

After she had talked for five or ten minutes about the lead-up to the surgery, she changed the subject and asked me how I was doing. I answered her briefly, but based on my experience with my surgery, I knew there were two other big topics that we hadn’t talked about—her hospital stay and her thoughts and fears about recovery—so next I asked about her time in the hospital. I tried to give her ample time to talk about her hospital stay by again using minimal encouragers and reflection and by asking brief questions. Then we talked about some other topics. Later in the conversation I asked about her thoughts and fears about her recovery.

When I asked her about her hospital stay, she said she was so grateful that her sister-in-law had worked for many years on the ward where she stayed. Once the nurses found out that my friend was related to their former colleague, they gave her extra attention, and my friend saw that as a manifestation of God’s care for her. If I hadn’t moved the conversation to the topic of her hospital stay, she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to talk about the way she experienced God’s care there. Toward the end of the conversation, after she had talked about her thoughts about her recovery, she circled back to the decision to go to the emergency room, and she said that she felt God’s guidance in making that decision. Making space for enough listening time so my friend could get to the topic of God’s presence in the situation is a gift that I was determined to give her, and I tried to express to her my joy that she experienced God’s guidance and care in the midst of this medical emergency.

All traumatic events have a lead-up, a central event or events, and a recovery time. In conversations focused on medical issues, a death, a natural disaster, a job loss, or any other kind of crisis, a listener can focus a series of questions on those three periods, allowing the conversation partner enough time to talk at length about each of the three. Most happy events—such as weddings, births, and new jobs—also have a lead-up, a central event or events, and the time afterwards, and happy events can also be a topic of pastoral care listening. As happened with my friend, the conversation might shift to something else for a while, which reduces the intensity for a few minutes. The listener can then later return the conversation to the major event by asking a question that moves the conversation to a time related to the event that hasn’t been discussed yet. The listener might say something like, “You talked about the events leading up to your job loss, but I haven’t heard about what happened after you got that news.”

If given enough time, people will often get to their thoughts and feelings about God’s presence with them in the trauma or happy event. If they don’t get there, I try to open the door to that topic by saying something like, “I’m hoping you experienced God’s comfort in the midst of it” or “I’ve been praying for a sense of Jesus walking with you in this.” People often do have a sense of God’s presence in small moments in times of trauma, even if they also have big questions and concerns about what happened. Sometimes the speaker’s central spiritual experience in trauma is the absence of God. A listener can give the gift of letting the person process those feelings out loud.

 

Some additional resources on listening:

(During Lent I’m posting excerpts from my book on listening. If you’d like to receive an email when I put a post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Book excerpt from The Power of Listening by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Rowman & Littlefield. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.)

My journey as a listener

Thursday March 12 2015

My journey as a listener

I am not a natural listener. I was a talkative child, and in most settings I am still a talkative adult.

My family still chuckles over the humiliating comment on my first grade report card: “Lynne talks more than enough for one.” I remember Sunday afternoon car trips in late elementary school. In those days before seatbelts, I would lean forward and spread my arms on the back of the front seat, sticking my head between my parents’ heads, and tell them the plot of the latest Nancy Drew book I was reading. In great detail.

I had a best friend in childhood, Wendy, whose loving listening was the anchor of my tumultuous teen years. I wanted to listen to others in the same way that she listened to me. So even as a teenager I began to pay attention to listening skills. In my college years when I learned to lead Bible study groups, I figured out that good listening helps leaders keep discussion flowing. So I continued to work on my listening skills.

In my twenties, someone told me that we remember 90 percent of what we say but only 10 percent of what we hear. I’m not sure those statistics are accurate, but they helped me reflect further on my teaching and leadership strategies. I was motivated to help others learn, so I tried to make space for others to talk, both in group settings and one on one. I tried to learn how to draw people out to enable them to talk about things that matter to them.

In the early 1990s I wrote a murder mystery, Deadly Murmurs, with a main character whose listening skills give her information about the murder. I dug the novel out and published it for Kindle as I was working on my book on listening, and as I edited and polished the novel, I realized I was thinking pretty intently about listening skills two decades ago.

About 15 years ago I was serving as an associate pastor at a church in Seattle, and the personnel committee designed a new staff evaluation process. They gave questionnaires about each staff member to several elders, who were asked to give anonymous feedback by writing short answers to a series of questions. One of the comments about me said this: “When Lynne puts her mind to it, she is a good listener.” When I first read those words, I was offended. After all, that comment implies that often I’m not a good listener, that I don’t listen well when I’m not focused on listening. Later I realized the comment was a pretty good compliment for someone who has always been talkative. In bits and pieces over many years I have learned listening skills, and when I put my mind to it, I use them well. What more could a talkative person be expected to do?

I’m telling you my story to illustrate that talkative people can grow as listeners. I teach a course on chaplaincy, and half the readings I select focus on listening skills and the significance of listening for chaplains. Last time I taught it, after we finished a major module on listening skills, I received comments from two students. Both of them said the readings and discussion about listening skills had been a revelation to them. Before they read and discussed the material, they had no idea that listening skills could be described and taught. One of them told me she had taken some of the readings back to her own congregation and was enthusiastically teaching listening skills to other leaders in the congregation.

 

Some additional resources on listening:

(During Lent I’m posting excerpts from my book on listening. If you’d like to receive an email when I put a post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Book excerpt from The Power of Listening by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Rowman & Littlefield. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.)

“Holy curiosity” as a way to think about effective listening

Friday March 6 2015

“Holy curiosity” as a way to think about effective listening

Albert Einstein coined the term “holy curiosity” in the 1940s to describe the freedom of inquiry he considered to be important in science education. People of faith have adopted this phrase because it evokes so much about effective Christian ministry. In order to meet needs, we must be curious about what they are. In order to give aid or help, we need to be curious about the ways to do it most effectively and in forms that empower the recipient. Our curiosity needs to have a holy quality about it, centered in God’s gentle and insightful love.

Curiosity can take two forms. One version of curiosity is nosy and prying, and it comes across as invasive. That kind of curiosity arises out of the listener’s need to know all the details about a person’s situation, perhaps so the listener can gossip with others about it or appear to be knowledgeable in other settings. A more subtle form of invasive curiosity arises when we feel proud of our listening abilities, so we draw people out in order to demonstrate our listening skills, so we can feel good about ourselves. Any self-focused listening can slide into being nosy and prying.

In contrast to nosy and invasive curiosity, the second form involves being interested and concerned, eager to understand the other person’s interests, priorities, and experiencesif she wants to talk about them. When the listener is motivated by God’s love, then this form of curiosity becomes holy curiosity, which undergirdsthe kinds of conversations in congregations, workplaces, and homes where people are able to express the overlap of their faith and their daily lives. Holy curiosity makes possiblepastoral care listening and listening for mission, and it lays a foundation for proclamation of the Christian Gospel.

Obstacles to holy curiosity come in several forms. So much of the fear that impedes listening in everyday settings comes from not truly believing that we can grow in understanding the priorities and values that lie behind another person’s convictions without agreeing with them. Listening often changes us because we understand more about how other people think and feel, but listening does not necessarily mean that we change our own central beliefs in response. Holy curiosity enables us to try to understand others’ beliefs and priorities, being open to change within ourselves but also being open to holding strongly to our own convictions. I love this quotation from a communication textbook: “There is a difference between understanding and agreeing with a speaker. We need to develop new psychological habits that encourage us to keep an open mind and a positive attitude to the motivation behind what is communicated to us orally” [1].

Another obstacle to holy curiosity is the conviction that we already know what the other person means when they say something. I told one of my friends about an upsetting stay in the hospital, and I mentioned one nurse who was like an anchor to me while I was there. At that point my friend commented that she was glad the nurse was helpful to me. Later in the conversation my friend returned to the topic, sayingshe hadn’t asked more about why the nurse meant so much to me simply because she assumed she already knew what made a nurse helpful. It took her until later in the conversation for her holy curiosity to come into play, making her wonder what I had particularly appreciated about that nurse.

 

Some additional resources on listening:

(During Lent I’m posting excerpts from my book on listening. If you’d like to receive an email when I put a post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Book excerpt from The Power of Listening by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Rowman & Littlefield. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.)

[1]Terry Mohan, Helen McGregor, Shirley Saunders, and Ray Archee, Communicating! Theory and Practice, 4th ed. (Sydney: Harcourt Brace, 1992), 417.

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