Be quick to listen, slow to speak. -James 1:19
The first duty of love—is to listen. -Paul Tillich
’Tis better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt. -Abraham Lincoln
Communication is the most important skill in life. We spend most of our waking hours communicating. But consider this: You’ve spent years learning how to read and write, years learning how to speak. But what about listening? What training or education have you had that enables you to listen so that you really, deeply understand another human being from that individual’s own frame of reference?
Think of a time when a person turned to face you squarely and displayed a sincere desire to fully hear and understand you. Chances are, that kind of undivided attention made quite an impact on you. More than likely, you felt accepted and encouraged to say whatever was truly on your mind. You may even have been open to hearing some counsel or advice from that listener, because you felt so understood by him or her. Listening at this level provides a foundation of trust necessary for producing stronger interpersonal relationships, because it expresses unselfish love and concern.
Usually when we are heard at such a deep level, we feel the freedom to safely express and process our ideas, problems, impending decisions, and emotions. Such listening conveys just how much the listener really wants to know and understand us. And that’s quite a gift. But listening is a skill that needs to be intentionally cultivated and utilized—and for most of us, not something that happens naturally or without much effort.
As we seek to share our faith, we gain overwhelmingly positive benefits through the practice of concentrated listening. As we listen intently, we receive greater insights into the lives of our seeking friends, enabling us to effectively focus our conversations more directly on their needs and concerns. I’m convinced that the very best way to engage seekers in spiritual conversations is to not only know how to ask key, provocative questions but, even more than that, understand how to truly listen to the hearts and souls of seekers.
Wherever I go to teach workshops about leading seeker small groups, people inevitably ask me who makes the best leaders. It’s sometimes assumed that evangelists and apologists would naturally be the most effective seeker small group leaders, but I don’t necessarily agree. Evangelists and apologists can be outstanding seeker group leaders, but they are sometimes more easily tempted to short-circuit the seeking process by dominating the discussion with their knowledgeable answers. Of course, as leaders, providing group members with reasonable answers and objective truths from the Bible is one of our main objectives. And we must always be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s promptings to communicate the gospel whenever he gives opportunity. But I have discovered over the years that unless we take the time to first really hear and understand our seeking friends, we run the high risk of alienating ourselves and causing our message to fall on deaf ears.
For the most part, whenever I engage seekers in spiritual conversations I ask several key questions and listen intently to their responses. I try to demonstrate respect, acceptance, and patience by giving them my undivided, uninterrupted attention. This approach is instrumental in bringing people to the point of trusting me enough to eventually ask me about my beliefs. Without pressure, manipulation, or arm-twisting, I hope to earn the right to be heard. And I earn it by being a good listener. And whenever seekers do cross the line of faith, looking back, it’s seems to me like I didn’t talk any of them into the kingdom; I listened them in!
What seekers need from Christians is to be listened to empathically. You may not be a gifted evangelist and you may not be a knowledgeable apologist, but don’t let that stop you from engaging seekers in life-changing discussions. You’ll find what really makes a significant impact is demonstrating an authentic, caring, and understanding heart toward seekers by the way you listen. And that’s definitely something you can do!