The most important relationship skill leaders can learn
3 steps to being a more attentive listener
Photo by Christina Morillo
Recently we asked two therapists to share advice on what to do and say when a young person discloses sexual abuse. Today we welcome Megan Lundgren back to the blog as she begins a two-part series offering professional, practical advice for leaders responding to students who are hurting. Let’s nurture empathy for young people as they follow Jesus toward a transformative faith.
Have you ever felt deeply heard by someone? In Caring Enough to Hear and Be Heard, David Augsburger writes, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.”
If the deepest human desires are to be known and loved, listening intently to another person is a clear path to fulfilling these desires. Attentive listening is, in my opinion, the most significant relational skill a church leader can possess.
Do you sometimes feel like you missed a class on relationship skills? We are not born with a skillset for active listening; it is a discipline that is learned and honed over time. Though some families model and teach active listening well, many others do not. Leaders who have not received a helpful model for listening skills in childhood often do not have opportunities to receive this education via curriculum in university or seminary settings. For leaders who desire to listen (and thus, love) well, here are three steps you can take, based on principles used to train therapists. 
Let’s consider the scenario of a student in your youth group who shares information with you which is sensitive and vulnerable.
Step one is to encourage the student as a means of affirming their willingness to speak vulnerably. The following strategies are methods for reflecting respect and validation of the student, in hopes that they will prompt the student to share more of their experience:
- Hold a silence after the student shares vulnerable information rather than trying to fill the space immediately with words.
- Use the person’s name when responding to their sharing.
- Pick out key feeling words that the student is expressing, and reflect them back with a question tone; this encourages the student to expand further on these feelings. For example, if a student shares, “I feel insecure,” you might respond simply, “Insecure?”
Paraphrasing and reflecting the student’s content are active listening tools which meet multiple needs. In reflecting content back to the student, the listener develops rapport because the student knows that their words were heard. This also decreases the burden on the student to work harder to ensure their feelings and thoughts matter to the listener. If you’ve ever wondered why people sometimes repeat themselves, increase volume or emotional intensity, or exaggerate, it may boil down to deeper needs of feeling heard or validated.
- Reflect back the vulnerable content that the student shared, highlighting key feelings and thoughts. Try to use the student’s exact language for feelings and thoughts when possible. E.g, “It sounds like you feel … [insert feelings and thoughts shared by the student].”
- End the paraphrase with a clarifying question: “Is that right? Am I hearing you correctly?”
Synthesize all of the information that was shared as a means of providing the student with closure to the experience of sharing vulnerable information. Summarizing is similar to paraphrasing in that it reflects what was shared, but summarizing focuses on the most significant feelings and needs. Summarizing may be reflected back to the student as the listener thanks the speaker for their vulnerable sharing. If appropriate, you may also ask if you can pray for the student, and summarize the student’s feelings and needs in your prayer.
Active listening is deceptively simple. The most common pitfalls church leaders face include:
- Fixating on content (what is being said) rather than feelings (how the student felt);
- Prioritizing problem solving above listening, and;
- Withdrawing rather than engaging.
When youth leaders listen well, their teams and students have an opportunity to feel that they are deeply known and loved—ultimately something that we all want. Truly, to listen to students well may be one of the most practical ways youth leaders can love our neighbor as ourselves (c.f. Matthew 27.39).
Resources for further study in Restoration Therapy:
www.RestorationTherapyTraining.com: offers national trainings by Terry Hargrave, Ph.D. and Wib Newton, Ph.D. for pastoral leaders.
Restoration Therapy: Understanding and Guiding Healing in Marriage and Family Therapy by Dr. Terry Hargrave