In my experience of church ministry, I have often found that most people who approach the church are in need of something on their “to do” list, but are also in need of so much more.  They are in need of someone to listen to their stories and help them move forward. Since I was 16, I have worked for companies that invested in Customer Service training programs to help their employees embody the foundational human principles of worth and value.  As an extrovert with a servant’s heart, I discovered that I had a natural ability to talk to new people and share a smile; so with the customer service training that I received paired with my personality, I learned how to navigate both easy and difficult situations when encountering people.  In my previous professions as a banker, an executive administrative assistant and a manager, I noticed when someone had a complaint or a problem and wanted to speak to a manager, they simply wanted someone to listen to their experience, acknowledge it and promise to do better next time.  They wanted to know that the company valued their business especially if they were spending their hard-earned money at the various establishments.  The church needs to be a listening church in order to share the Gospel message with others.

In this series of posts, I’m going to break it all down in manageable to chunks to help you strengthen your communication skills with everyone around you.  Not just what a teen is sharing with you after youth group, but how you are communicating with fellow staff members, people, parents and parishioners who come to see you, people you encounter at the grocery store or restaurants and even your family members around the Thanksgiving table.

To hear vs. To listen

Let’s take these two simple verbs and briefly explore their similarities and differences so that we can become better at both.  First of all, the words “hear” and “listen”, at first glance and use, don’t they mean the same thing?  The answer is yes and no.  Yes, they both indicate an action to receive sound from an outside source; however no, they are not the same because there can be different degrees to which the sound is received, accepted and processed.

I’ll give you some quick definitions and examples to draw it out:

To hear:

1:  to take in through the ear; Example:  I hear laughter.

2:  to have the power of hearing; Example:  Grandpa doesn’t hear well anymore.

3:  to gain knowledge of by hearing; Example:  I hear he’s moving to another state.

To listen:

1:  to pay attention in order to hear; Example:  Are you listening to me?

2:  to hear and consider seriously; Example:  He listened to his father’s advice.

Can you see and hear the difference?  Hearing is most closely associated with the sound and a basic processing of what is being heard.  Now, let’s look at listening.  Listening is where you start to really discover clues to what a person is telling you or what is happening around you.

The following list of “First steps in Listening” will help you to improve your relational ministry skills with others.  Don’t get overwhelmed with the whole list; take one at a time and work up to mastering them all.  Then get ready for Part 2 and Part 3 to come to take your skills to the “next level.”

First Steps in Listening

  1. Be welcoming – Welcome your guest with either a handshake or a hug and a smile.  Be happy to see them again or meet them for the first time.  This is the beginning of a relationship.  Who really even knows what kind of impact or influence you may have on this person’s life or how you will be able to help them?  Blessed Mother Teresa said, “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.” Jesus welcomed the stranger, the sick and the forgotten.  Isn’t he asking you to do the same?
  1. Be hospitable – Offer a glass of coffee or water. Open the door for them, lead the through the halls and offer them a seat. Jesus sat with people and made them feel comfortable and confident around him.  The people trusted and confided in him. This is what we’re going for here.
  1. Make eye contact – Look at the person; don’t just see their physical appearance; focus on them when you talk and listen; don’t stare out the window or look off to the side. It might be difficult at first but try and bring a greater awareness to your habits or have a coworker observe you.  Eye contact shows that you are paying attention. If they look away, that’s okay, you’re here to help.
  1. Have an assertive and open posture – Sit up straight, face the person with a soft open posture by folding your hands or placing them gently on your lap or desk; put down any pens or other things that you might fiddle with and absolutely do not cross your arms. If there is a tablet or notebook that you use to take notes regarding the situation, let them know at the beginning that you like to have this available in case you need to jot down some notes, ask permission if it is okay.  They will almost always say “yes” because this shows that you care and want to offer the best help possible.
  1. Eliminate distractions – Clear off the mountain of papers and stacks of “things to do”; close the books, minimize the open windows on your computer screen, put your phone on “do not disturb” or send the phone calls directly to voicemail, silence your personal cell phone and turn it face down so that the notifications don’t distract you. These easy things will make a big, big difference in the time you are spending with the person across from you.
  1. Give them your full attention – By following step number 5, step number 6 will be much, much easier. Be present to the person you are talking and listening to.

Pray to St. Gabriel the Archangel who is the patron saint of conversations for courage and perseverance when working towards becoming a good listener and stay tuned for the next two parts in this listening series.

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