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Hearing Others: What Happens When You Listen Deeply

Leaders often learn tools and techniques for effective listening. The most important one though is not usually taught. This tool addresses how listening affects us emotionally.

Listening is risky business. That’s why many of us avoid doing it, especially at church.

If someone talks about how a policy or attitude hurts them or makes life difficult for their family, you as a leader might be faced with conflicting thoughts and emotions. You may start looking seriously at the policy of your church, synagogue, or other religious institution and reflecting on whether it is necessary.

It might cause agitation when someone mentions something you said or did and either criticizes or praises it. If you truly listen to what the person is saying, you might accept the need for adjusting your approach, or you might conclude that you are more effective and more worthy than you previously believed.

If you listen deeply to another person, you risk being changed in some way.

Good listening is not completely focused on the other person. In addition to hearing what the other person is saying verbally and nonverbally, good listening includes noticing your own emotions and internal responses as another person speaks. When uncomfortable personal feelings arise, it is easier to focus back on your own agenda or prepare your rebuttal. At that point, you are no longer listening.

Instead allow your own discomfort to be present, but focus on the other person’s communication at the same time. Notice how you are feeling, how your body is responding and what situations from the past come to mind.

This is a lot of information to take in. It is not possible to listen effectively and not be fully present both to the other person and to yourself.


Things to notice about yourself include:

Notice what happens in your body. Do you tense up? Does your breathing relax or increase, or do you hold your breath for a moment? Do you fidget or are you totally still? Do you feel a pain in your back or a tingling in your stomach?

Notice your emotions. Do you feel nervous, calm, intimidated, excited….

Pay attention to any thoughts that arise about previous situations you have experienced. Don’t dwell on these, but make a mental note and then think about them later.

Notice why you are responding the way you are. If the answer comes to you quickly make a note of it, and then set it aside to think about more deeply later. If you aren’t sure why you are responding a certain way, don’t ponder it while listening, but think about it later. Ask yourself, “What made me a bit agitated? Why might I have suddenly thought about an argument I had with a friend last year?”

Things to notice about the other person and the active observation process. (These are often taught. If you know them, skip to the Spiritual Aspects of Listening section):

A good listener hears not just the words that are spoken, but watches and interprets body language including tone of voice, body movement and facial expressions.

Neither words nor body language can be taken as statements of clear fact. Both, but especially nonverbal communication varies from person to person depending on upbringing, culture and motives.

Even between people who have known each other a long time and are emotionally close, words and body language can be misinterpreted, which is where active observation comes in. Confirm your interpretation of verbal and nonverbal cues by stating what you are seeing and hearing and asking if that’s what the person means. “You are saying, ‘Everything is fine,’ but you are tensing up and looking away, does this mean that you are not comfortable sharing something that is bothering you?”

Sometimes you can use active observation of words with a non-verbal response such as giving a confused look or showing the emotion you feel. If you look confused, the other person will likely explain more. If you show disappointment with the person’s situation, but they are actually feeling relieved, the person may respond to your nonverbal cue by telling you how he or she actually feels.

Spiritual Aspects:

Listening deeply is not a superficial undertaking, it often leads to wrestling with the question of “Where is God in all of this?” or to pondering the ultimate questions of the meaning and value of life.

This can be an intense place to dwell, whether your internal responses are deeply troubling, confusing or awestruck. It’s always easier to half tune out the other person by thinking about what you are going to say next or by paying attention to other things going on in the room, rather than to face the mystery of life in all its struggle and beauty.

It is through listening deeply that we live life more fully and with richer meaning. When we do this, we change and develop.

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