Draw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave BaabA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthThe Power of ListeningDeath in Dunedin: A NovelJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationSabbath Keeping FastingDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelPersonality Type in CongregationsBeating Burnout in CongregationsPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeA Renewed SpiritualityFriendingAdvent Devotional

Lynne's Blog

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.

Why Do We Listen?

Thursday February 26 2015

Why Do We Listen?

A few weeks ago, I suggested that perhaps a focus on listening might be a good thing to do in Lent. For the weeks of Lent, I’m going to post excerpts from my book, The Power of Listening, in case you’d like to work on your listening skills. I’m beginning with some thoughts on the purpose of listening.

Humans listen for many different reasons. Like most mammals, birds, and reptiles, humans listen at a very basic level to protect ourselves and our loved ones from danger. For a raccoon or robin, listening brings awareness of predators. When I ride my bicycle, I pay attention to the car and truck traffic on the road, and part of my awareness comes from listening. When I had young children and I walked with them near busy streets, I used all my senses, including hearing, to try to keep them safe from harm.

Listening plays a role for some animals in their ability to find food, and a parallel for humans might involve all the listening we do that gives us information for all sorts of purposes. As we listen for information, we easily move from facts to analysis of the facts, and then to deeper meaning. Note the progression in complexity and level of meaning in the following series of questions: What time does that movie start? Where is the theater located? What kinds of things are reviewers saying about the movie? Does it sound like a good movie? Does this movie have spiritual implications? If I took a group of high school students from the youth group to that movie, what kinds of issues might we discuss afterwards?

Communication scholars make a distinction between hearing and listening. Hearing involves perceiving a sound with the ear, while listening involves paying attention to the sounds received by the ear and perceiving the meaning in them. We might say listening involves being alert to the sounds we hear. When we listen, we heed the sounds, tune into them, give consideration to them, or process them actively. In fact, the English word “listen” comes from two Anglo-Saxon words. One of them means “hearing,” and the other means “to wait in suspense.” Conversations might manifest greater love and attentiveness if we adopted an attitude of waiting in suspense to learn something from the other person’s words.

In common parlance, we interchange the meaning of these two words—listen and hear—quite frequently. “Yes, I hear you,” we might say when we want to indicate that we’re listening carefully. Or we might say, “I’m listening to the radio,” when we’re immersed in another task and the radio has become background noise only.

When I take the youth group to that new movie and we talk about it afterward, I will hear the words that come out of the mouth of the youth group members, but will I truly listen to what they are saying? Will I hear the emotions behind the words? And what interpretation will I give to the words I hear? Many factors impede our ability to listen carefully, even if we are physically hearing the words people say.

The challenges of interpretation grow more intense when conversations focus on deeper issues, when the purpose of listening becomes more nuanced. Why might I desire to listen deeply to the youth group members when discussing a movie with spiritual themes? Is the goal to help the students feel that someone cares about their thoughts? To help them make deeper connections to Christian themes? To motivate them to draw near to God in prayer? And to what extent am I accurately perceiving the central issues the students are trying to talk about, particularly when I have a goal or agenda for the conversation?

Which aspect should the listener pay attention to? To the facts? To the emotions of the person telling the story? To the strategic implications? Can we listen to all those things simultaneously?

Some additional resources on listening:

(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.)

Of clouds and attentiveness

Tuesday February 17 2015

Of clouds and attentiveness

A couple of years ago, in a moment of air-headedness, I ran my car into a post in a parking lot. The wheel well collapsed into the wheel. After calls to our insurance company and a body shop, I found myself in the cab of a tow truck.

I asked the driver, a man about 40 years old, where he was from, and learned he had been born and raised in the same suburb of Dunedin, New Zealand, where he now lives. I asked him if he had lived anywhere else, and he said he had spent a few years in Brisbane, Australia, where the consistently sunny weather drove him crazy.

He said he likes the rapid changes in weather that we experience here in Dunedin. “Just look at that sky,” he enthused. “It’s gorgeous. All those clouds. That’s what I missed in Brisbane.”

I glanced at the sky. “All those clouds” were, from my point of view, gray and drab. Admittedly, I was probably a bit shell shocked from hitting the post and hearing that awful crunch of breaking plastic, but it was not the sort of sky that I could imagine getting enthusiastic about.

The driver dropped me, and my beleaguered car, at the body shop. I picked up a loaner car and made my way home. At the first stop light, I looked at the sky again. I noticed the variations in the shades of gray within the towering clouds, and the small peeks of blue sky and yellow light around the clouds. The tow truck driver had been right. The clouds were beautiful. In order to see the beauty, I needed to look closely.

A Jewish Sabbath prayer goes like this: “Days pass, years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.” I don’t know if I’m better at sightlessness than other people, but I do know I’m exceptionally good at it.

The Sabbath has been one spiritual practice in my life that has slowed me down enough to look at the beauty of the world God made and at the miracles God continues to perform. I don’t think it’s any accident that the Jewish prayer about walking sightless among miracles is a Sabbath prayer. I’ve written a book and a lot of articles about sabbath keeping, enabling me to reflect on that particular spiritual practice as a way to be more attentive to God’s world and work around me. I still keep a sabbath, and it has been one of the joys of my life.

In the past few years I’ve been broadening out to consider other spiritual practices that encourage attentiveness and mindfulness:

  • The intentional practice of thankfulness.
  • Pausing to take a deep breath, then focusing on my surroundings for a few moments.
  • At the end of each day, looking back over my day for signs of God’s presence (the prayer of examen).
  • Saying grace at meals in a way that is not perfunctory but actually involves a few moments of attention to the smells and look of the food I’m about to eat.

Lent begins this week, and Lent is a great time to try a new habit or pattern or practice to help us draw near to God. This idea of attentiveness or mindfulness isn’t new for me, but I still need it desperately. I need the joy and peace that comes from seeing God’s gifts and God’s hand in my life. For Lent this year, I’m going to focus on attentiveness.

Here’s my question of the day: what helps you notice God’s goodness surrounding you?

(To receive an email update whenever I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.” This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering voices.)

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