Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationSabbath Keeping FastingPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathFriendingA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthA Renewed SpiritualityDeath in Dunedin: A NovelDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelPersonality Type in CongregationsBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

Lynne's Blog

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 is not 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.

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.)

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