If you’ve led a small group for more than a few weeks, or if you’ve participated in one, you understand that listening is a valuable tool. That makes sense because most small groups spend the majority of their meeting time talking about their lives, talking about the Scriptures, talking about important concepts, and so on. With all that talking, someone needs to be listening!
But here’s the problem: most people aren’t good listeners. Not naturally, anyway. Most people are much better at expressing what they think than at genuinely listening to the thoughts of others. And for small-group leaders especially, this can become a major problem.
There is good news, however: listening is a skill that can be learned and improved upon. You can become a better listener if you are intentional about doing so.
With that in mind, here are three steps you can take to become a better listener.
1. Stay in the Present
One of the obstacles that prevents us from listening well is allowing our minds to drift outward toward the future—or even backward toward the past. This is especially true for group leaders during a group meeting.
How often have you found yourself thinking forward to points of the meeting still to come? How should I phrase the next question? When should I move to the next question? Should I try to get Steven to talk more? How much time should we set aside for prayer? What will traffic be like when we drive home?
In the same way, how often have you found yourself drawn back to the recent past during a group meeting? Why didn’t James and Kelly come? Was the cheese dip okay? What have the kids been up to for the past 30 minutes?
This constant mental pull away from the present is the biggest hindrance to genuine listening. In order to listen well, then, you must be intentional about remaining in the present. Always be conscious of the temptation to think forward and backward, and always resist that temptation to the best of your ability. Stay in the now.
2. Use Body Language
Most people associate listening with hearing the words people say—and that’s certainly part of it. But you know it’s possible for those words to go in one ear and then straight out the other. Hearing doesn’t mean comprehending or appreciating.
Your group members know this, as well. That’s why they will feel so much better about sharing and being vulnerable when your body language tells them you are giving them your fullest attention.
The first step in attentive body language is making eye contact. When a group member shares during a discussion, be sure to look at them—not at your Bible, or at your study guide. And especially not at your phone. Look the person in the eyes.
In addition to eye contact, your body posture is a physical representation of your attention. So, if you lean toward a person who is speaking, that person will feel your attention moving in their direction. If you slump backward or lean against the side of your chair, you are subtly communicating a lack of attention.
Finally, use your body language to encourage those who share in your group. Most group members feel a bit insecure when they offer opinions or demonstrate vulnerability in front of others. But an encouraging smile can go a long way toward easing their fear. You can also nod your head to show that you’ve heard them and you approve of what they are saying.
3. Use Reflective Listening
When someone takes the initiative to share in a group setting, they want to know if they’ve really been heard—if they’ve been understood. And reflective listening is a great way to communicate that you have indeed understood.
At the core, reflective listening involves reflecting, or re-phrasing, what’s been said. You are re-stating what you heard in order to show the speaker that you understand. Usually, you demonstrate reflective listening by starting with a phrase such as, “I’m hearing you say…” or, “Am I hearing you say…?”
For example, say a group members shares how she used to focus entirely on her behavior in connection with her relationship with God—doing good things and avoiding bad things. But now she’s discovering that God loves her even when she make mistakes. You could use reflective listening this way: “Am I hearing you say you’ve come to a new understanding about grace?” Doing so tells the speaker that you’ve heard her, and it offers a chance for her to clarify her thoughts if necessary.
Obviously, you don’t want to use reflective listening every time a group member speaks. That would clog up the whole discussion. Instead, use reflective listening when someone seems hesitant or conflicted about what they’re trying to say—and especially when someone shares something vulnerable. Those are the moments when it pays to tell people they have genuinely been heard.
Sam O’Neal is a Content Editor on the Adult Ministry Publishing team at LifeWay. He has a passion for seeing discipleship and full-bodied Christian education done right in the local church—especially in the context of small group communities. Sam is also the author of “The Field Guide for Small Group Leaders“. You can follow Sam on Twitter @SamTONeal.