Monday, November 3, 2014

Leaders must learn to listen

A common thread found in many troubled churches is that a lot of discussions about their problems occur in the parking lots, hallways, and empty rooms in the church.  These impromptu meetings may have taken place for months before any official complaint was made public.  There are various reasons why such meetings exist.  In some cases, disgruntled church members are trying to win converts to their cause.  Often, controllers like to work in the shadows and this is a way they try to find someone else to take the public stand they desire while keeping themselves out of the limelight.  I think a very common, and perhaps the most common, reason for such meetings is that people feel the leaders won't listen to them so try to find someone who will.

John Maxwell makes this point in his excellent book Good Leaders Ask Great Questions: Your Foundation for Successful Leadership.  He writes, "When a leader listens to members of the team, that act gives the leader greater credibility and therefore influence.  On the other hand, when team members no longer believe that their leader listens to them, they start looking around for someone who will." If people believe, right or wrong, that their pastor will not listen to what they have to say, they will find someone who will listen.  One of the ways wise pastors can stop conflict in the church before it starts is to make sure people believe that you are listening to their concerns.

Strong leaders often struggle with this.  As a younger pastor I was not a good listener.  While others were talking I was thinking of what I was going to say next.  I would interrupt sending the message that what I had to say was more important than what they were saying.  Sometimes I completely misunderstood what people were trying to tell me because I wasn't focused on what they were saying.  Even if I did understand them, they would leave the discussion feeling they had not been heard because of my interruptions and responses.

I admit that I am a bottom-line guy.  I don't want to hear a lot of detail.  Give me a brief statement of what you want me to know, and I'll want to respond with 3-4 bullet points that will solve your problem. At that point I'm ready to move on to the next thing.  The problem with that is that sometimes we need the details or we end up solving the wrong problem, and then we've made it worse because now the person is convinced we don't care and aren't taking their issues seriously.  Their next step is apt to be the parking lot where they will find someone who will listen.  So, I've had to learn to be a more active listener, and doing so has prevented some minor issues from becoming major conflicts.

Active listening involves actually listening to what people are saying without going over in your mind what you're going to say in response.  It involves asking questions and paraphrasing what you think you heard back to the speaker to ensure you heard him or her correctly.  When done correctly, the speaker leaves the discussion feeling that their views have been heard and understood even if they don't agree with your response.

I have found that responding as a coach rather than as a consultant often helps me be a more active listener.  Because coaching involves asking powerful questions it is far more likely that I am going to correctly understand what the other person is saying, and it often helps me assist the other person to find the answer to their concern from within themselves.

Leaders who don't listen to the whispers will eventually have to hear the screams.  Listening well can help reduce the number and severity of the conflicts that will arise making this is a vital responsibility for every leader.

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