By Eddie Pipkin

I’ve had some great opportunities this summer to catch up with people I haven’t seen in a very long time, including long lost relatives from Texas and some old ministry friends.  We’ve chatted for hours, and it’s been a great reminder of the power of free-flowing talk to build bridges, create shared vision, and nurture empathy.  These experiences have reinforced my obsession with the importance of mindful conversations to the success of ministry.  If we’re lucky the pace slows down for us some in the summer months, and the opportunities are there for the kind of slow and thoughtful conversation that can connect us in new ways and open previously unexplored pathways.

Think about it: Jesus modeled conversational ministry.  Obviously, he taught and preached in one-sided sermons that we still quote today.  But many of the most powerful narratives of the Gospel are interactive conversations – questions and answers explored in a communal dynamic in which Jesus demonstrates the power of listening as an essential companion to the pronouncement of wisdom.

It is not uncommon for ministry leaders to lose sight of that effective give-and-take (the listening as equal partner with the speaking).  We are well-trained, confident chieftains, eager to share what we know, and ready to offer up our hard-earned wisdom.  We like the sound of our own voices, and we can be guilty of drowning out others.  Yet, there is much to be gained from attentive, sincere listening.  In fact, I am convinced that the majority of ministry problems (for institutions at large and for us as individual leaders) could be solved if we would just talk to one another more.  There are many times when we make assumptions as leaders (about people’s motivations and opinions) that are just flat wrong, when we could – instead of assuming – go straight to the source and have a one-on-one conversation.

So, how to know when we are leaders who are talking too much, and how do we know the ways to get the best use out of the conversations in which we are engaged.

In the first case, Charles Stone offers some clues that we are probably over-talking at the expense of better listening:

  • You dominate meetings.When you get together with your staff or volunteers, do you routinely overpower all the other speakers in the room?  If someone was drawing up a pie chart of who spoke for what duration in the meeting – and this is a fun exercise to actually do by recording a meeting and having someone pie chart it per speaker – is your pie slice by far the fattest?  There is a long-term impact on running a meeting in this way.  People get used to it and adapt, learning a lesson that yours is the only voice that counts.
  • People come to you for answers rather than to offer their own insights and ideas. When you’re discussing a problem with staff, a volunteer, or someone who utilizes your ministry, is it a dynamic conversation?  Are you taking time to listen to their true concerns are and asking them for ideas or their own suggested solutions?  Or are people just trained to turn to you for answers for everything?  You can’t develop healthy people (including healthy leaders) if they are always holding on to your apron strings rather than negotiating their own solutions.
  • You’re always in a conversational hurry. I had a leader once who would go on at length with a personal story related to whatever the topic of the moment was, but once I started offering my own take on that topic, she would instinctively look at her watch.  Even if an unintentional habit, a move like that sends a clear message – and not a good one.  Real conversation requires patience.  It is a matter of reminding ourselves that the ultimate point of the conversation is not solely solving the problem at hand.  The real point of the conversation is strengthening the relationship.
  • Silence bugs you. You probably conversate a lot, maybe even with style and authority.  Many of the people you meet with or strike up a dialogue with will be less confident about sharing their opinions.  Give them space.  Let the silence hang there for a bit, so they know it’s their turn to express themselves and that you are willing to wait to hear what they have to say.  Don’t rush in to fill the quiet.
  • You are thinking up your own response to share as soon as the other person pauses. This is not truly listening; it’s just tolerating their words while you wait to impart your awesomeness.  We all do this!  Intentional mental discipline is required to stop that reflexive process and task ourselves to listen attentively and fully, to ask follow-up questions and empathize.

These five warning signs are classic indicators of bad listening (not limited to ministry applications, but to leadership and life in general).  While some of us are naturally-gifted listeners, it is not a predominant trait among ministry leaders (who are often, by definition, type-A personalities, eager to express themselves).  It is, however, a skill that can be learned, practiced, and reinforced if we make it a priority.

There are plenty of resources out there about how to develop those skills as a listening pastor or ministry leader.  We must overcome a natural tendency displayed in all human beings to talk about ourselves, as noted in a revealing article from Scientific American:

If you’re like most people, your own thoughts and experiences may be your favorite topic of conversation.  On average, people spend 60 percent of conversations talking about themselves — and this figure jumps to 80 percent when communicating via social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook.  Why, in a world full of ideas to discover, develop, and discuss, do people spend the majority of their time talking about themselves?  Recent research suggests a simple explanation: because it feels good.

We also have to counteract a natural expression of ego – after all, not only are we great leaders, but we are called by God, for goodness’ sake!  That makes it pretty tempting to pontificate at will, and if you’re like me, you’ve seen plenty of ministry leaders do just that.  Perhaps you also, like me, routinely catch yourself in the act.  As noted in an article from The Gospel Coalition:

Proud people tend to talk about themselves a lot. Proud people tend to like their opinions more than the opinions of others. Proud people think their stories are more interesting and engaging than others. Proud people think they know and understand more than others. Proud people think they’ve earned the right to be heard. Proud people, because they are basically proud of what they know and what they’ve done, talk a lot about both.

Less pride and more curiosity should be our goal!  Of course, once we’ve made the commitment to be better listeners and better conversationalists in general, it still takes practice to be good at it.  There are techniques involved in moving even the most banal of conversational interactions to a place in which something meaningful is happening.  Anna Papachristos has some ideas for moving beyond weather chit-chat to a more profound appreciation of our conversational partners.   She shares this crucial insight from Christina Park:

“If you approach small talk with the belief that it will be dull and pointless, it probably will,” Park explains. “Instead of dwelling on negative thoughts (‘I’m awful at this,’ ‘I hate small talk,’ or ‘when can I go home?’), remind yourself that small talk isn’t superficial. Small talk serves an important purpose – it helps build the foundation for authentic conversations and deeper relationships down the road. Think of small talk as the light appetizer before the main course, and approach it with renewed purpose.”

There are some simple rules to expand any exchange:

  • Don’t be a pessimistic partner. Anybody – even a kid – can tell when you’re not really interested in what they have to say.  Don’t begin listening from a position of skepticism.  Assume there is something useful and enlightening to hear.
  • Do ask open-ended questions. This is a very simple and effective strategy.  Avoid “yes” or “no” questions and instead ask questions that encourage your partner to share stories and personal experiences.
  • Don’t be afraid to be a little goofy or provocative on purpose (to provoke a response). If the conversation is stalling out, try something from left field or play the devil’s advocate just to add a little spice and perhaps spark some passion.
  • On the other hand, avoid an interrogation. Don’t be all questions all the time.  Use opportunities to open up about yourself and help your conversational partner get to know you better.  Don’t pontificate!  Do share personal insights.
  • Admit your ignorance and turn the conversation into a learning moment. When your partner touches on a topic about which you have limited insight, lean into your lack of knowledge.  Ask them about why they do what they do and how they do it.  This taps into people’s interests and is a very comfortable way for them to express themselves.
  • Employ the 20-second rule, or some other rule that works for you, to keep the two-way conversation flowing. Be very aware of the length of time you’re talking.  Use a system, if you need to, to consciously make space for the other speaker.
  • Be mindful of your purpose and the inherent possibility in each and every conversational interaction. Each conversation with each person is a unique opportunity to forge bonds, solve problems, gain insights, and establish trust.  Go into each one with the attitude that it will be a useful opportunity to do one (or all) of those things, and it will be!

How do you think you rate as a listener?  As a conversational partner?  Even more important, how do you think the people you talk with routinely rate your listening and conversational skills?  Ask them!  Then listen carefully.  You just might be surprised at what you hear.

What have your own experiences been with learning to engage people in more productive spoken exchanges?  Share your own stories.  We’re listening!