Tears streamed down his face. I sat across the table from a close friend of mine as he shared about his seventeen-year-old daughter, who was on the streets and lost to drug addiction. I just sat listening, every so often validating what I heard him say, and asking questions that helped me better understand his story. In the end, I said very little.
After a long pause, he let out a huge sigh and looked me in the eyes and said, “Thanks, you really helped me today.”
What does true help look like?
I helped? I did nothing tangible. I gave no advice. I didn’t suggest a book or a three-step process to save his daughter. Yet somehow, I helped.
I think it was more of what I did not do than what I did do. I avoided phrases like, “Oh, I can relate” and “I know what you mean.” I steered clear of popular advice and refrained from giving comments that start with words like, “Well, you could have…” or “You and your wife should….” Rarely does such advice bring comfort, and pulling a person from sharing their story into our own is anything but good listening.
Have you ever met a person who is just easy to talk to? The greatest burdens you feel or the intimate fears you have seem to almost jump out of you when you are around them. Maybe you are that person for others? I have had the honor of people telling me that I am someone that they feel like they can be transparent with. Have you ever wondered what creates that?
Experts explain that one of the most critical parts of creating healthy communication is the ability to listen—more precisely, listening with the intent to understand someone.
My favorite description of someone who listens well is that they stay curious.
Most people long to be heard and understood. We want people to know our story and in spite of our fears or broken beliefs, we desire in the depths of our soul to be known and, more importantly, to be loved.
To listen well, we must remove our agendas and remain in a place of curiosity about the other person’s story. When we put our agenda in front of hearing someone, we miss out on what the other person is wanting to say. We could derail them or even frustrate the process of understanding their whole story.
A healthy disciple-making culture has the characteristics of Jesus, and when we look at the life of Christ, he certainly modeled a desire to understand. He asked great questions and listened well to those who followed him.
In the Gospels, Jesus asks many more questions than he gives answers. He asks 307 questions, to be exact. Often, he answers questions with yet another question, and in doing so, Jesus models the relational process of seeking to understand and help others to understand themselves at deeper level.
I have learned that communication is one of the most important skills to have when building a healthy disciple-making culture. Beyond just the mechanics of speaking, reading, and writing, the mechanics of actually listening and helping others feel loved and understood ranks at the top.
Creating a culture similar to the one Jesus created with his disciples requires us to be willing to master the art of listening with the intent to understand. Below I have listed several key concepts that can begin to help you improve your own listening, thus improving the health of a disciple-making culture.
- Remove distractions. When someone is talking to you, put away your cell phone. Make eye contact, and try to remove anything that will break your focus from their story.
- Listen for tone. Notice the tone of their voice and anything that would indicate how what they are saying is impacting them. Tone of voice will often follow emotion, so pay close attention.
- Use good body language. Sit forward in your chair or lean toward them. Sitting back with your arms crossed is poor body language. Nod and assure them that you are hearing what they are saying.
- Ask clarifying questions. If you become lost or confused in what they are saying, gently ask them for clarity. Tell them, “I really want to understand what you are saying. Can you clarify?” or “Can you repeat that last part? I missed what you were saying.”
- Affirm what you heard. Using their words, not your interpretation, say to them, “This is what I heard you say….” Say what you heard, then ask them, “Is that what you are saying?”
If we can stay curious about those who cross our path in life, we may find that our relationships deepen. Who knows? We might also learn a few things about ourselves along the way.