If you’re not listening well, then you’re not leading well. Leaders who don’t listen head down the road of either oblivion or tyranny. The oblivious leader is lazy. The tyrant is selfish. Obviously, most leaders—even the bad ones—are not this extreme. In the church, however, listening is especially important because of the nature of spiritual growth. How can you guide someone to be more like Christ if you don’t listen carefully to what they say?
I know I’m guilty of thinking of my next sentence as someone speaks so I can say what I want. Just because you’re not cutting someone off while they speak doesn’t mean you are listening. Active listening is one helpful communication technique. Understanding, retaining, and responding to what someone is saying is necessary for pastors and church leaders.
Even when you are listening actively, with the best of intentions, you can still miss important cues and information. Not only should you carefully listen to what is said, you should also listen for what is not said. Sometimes what church members don’t say is as crucial as what they do say. Three key questions can help you discern if anything significant is not being said.
- What is avoided? Let’s assume you’re discussing a sensitive issue with two people, one in which an obvious offense exists, but neither of them mention it. They simply talk around the issue. The fact they are avoiding the issue, and not discussing it, is more telling than the ancillary items they bring up. Also, you should take notice when people hesitate. You might ask someone what you believe to be a benign question, but then he hesitates in responding. Hesitations should cause you to think there might be something deeper there.
- What is unknown? Pastors are often the first to know about an occurrence in the church, or the last to know. The tone of a group of people in the church will change, and you won’t know why. They will be unusually sad, or unusually happy, or just different. Often, there is something unknown to you. Simply asking what’s occurring will many times lead to an answer. Cross-check with a couple other people to make sure you have the whole story.
- What is hidden? Yes, people hide things, even your closest confidants. When church members confess sin, they rarely confess everything at once. No church leader should be swept into silly conspiracy theories, but sometimes people do have hidden agendas. You should remain alert to the assumptions of others.
Clearly, you should not attempt to “read between the lines” in every conversation. Only paranoid pastors think there’s a hidden agenda in everything. But careful and shrewd leaders grow to appreciate and learn what they don’t know. In order to gain this understanding, you must learn to listen to what is not being said.