iStock/Kim Berry Wood
C. Kavin Rowe: Listening well
Flourishing institutions require leaders who know how to listen well, which demands the ability to pay active attention while avoiding distraction and to relate what is being said to its context.
October 23, 2012 | Leaders need to know how to listen well.
It seems so obvious. Why bring it up? Because the truth is that many leaders are more focused on telling people what to do than they are on listening to them.
Admittedly, this is understandable. Much of a leader’s work does turn on knowing what to do and being able to communicate that effectively. But the skill of listening is as crucial as anything else. Indeed, being able to listen well is often the prerequisite for knowing what to do. Yet cultivating the ability to listen is not something leaders tend to think about.
It is often said that listening is not the same thing as hearing.
You can quite easily, for example, hear people talk without listening to them. Words are perceived, but there is no real comprehension or effort to understand. Listening, by contrast, is much more difficult and requires discipline and effort.
Sarah Churman’s moving story about entering the world of hearing for the first time as an adult provides a rich analogy to the work of listening.
Churman was born deaf. But at the age of 29, she received a middle-ear implant that enabled her to hear for the first time. Her husband recorded the initial moments of Sarah’s experience of sound, and the video has now been seen on YouTube more than 14 million times. It has obviously touched something very deep.
What is most interesting for leaders who are trying to learn how to listen is the way Sarah describes her experience within the first weeks of being able to hear. She was completely surprised, for example, to learn that scratching her head made a noise. The crunch of croutons on her first salad in the world of sound was like fireworks to her.
The constant “internal noises” -- breathing, stomach gurgling, heart beating, blood coursing through the body and so on -- were loud and obvious. The normal squeaks of her young children playing or squabbling were stunning -- and miraculous. And on and on.
In short, much of the entire context of sound that remains in the background for the rest of us came immediately to Sarah’s attention. Her sudden entrance into the world of sound meant that she was able to listen to things that we “hear” all the time but do not consciously acknowledge.
Sarah’s attention, in other words, was immediately drawn to a more pervasive context of human life. Croutons, of course, make the same noise on the decibel scale regardless of who’s listening; it was Sarah’s attention and sensitivity that made them sound like fireworks.
As with any analogy, the point of connection is not perfect. Yet Sarah’s story forcefully reminds us that we can develop sensitivity to a whole realm of things if we can discipline our attention.
Scripture is full of examples of leaders who listen well (and leaders who don’t -- think only of the various kings in the books of Kings). Perhaps the most dramatic example is the apostle Paul in his letters. Of course, Paul himself had his share of apparently tactless moments, but on the whole, his letters display a remarkable ability to listen.
Exactly how this is so is not immediately obvious. But in fact it makes great sense of one of the more initially puzzling features of Paul’s letters -- namely, why it is that he responds to pastoral issues with long theological discourses instead of direct advice.
Paul does give advice and direction -- and outright commands -- but predominately, his responses to his congregations and his directions for living come through prolonged theological engagement with basic Christian claims. A chief reason for this, I have come to think, is because Paul listens well enough to hear things far beyond the direct questions or reports from his congregations and co-workers. He can therefore place the concerns of his congregations in a much wider and more meaningful context.
Think of his letters to the Corinthians, for example.
In almost every verse, these letters show that Paul is not simply answering the questions he has been asked or the reports he has heard. Instead, he pays remarkable attention to the wider civil situation in Corinth, to philosophical currents whose influence is felt in the congregation, to religious practices, to economic differences and so on.
His sensitivity to the things of everyday life in Corinth is well-honed, and he puts the sound of Corinthian life into conversation with basic Christian theology as he responds. When he deals with the church’s question about eating the food that had been offered to idols, for example, he crafts a very careful response that applies the Christian understanding of worship -- God alone is worthy of our worship -- in a way that rules out the danger of idolatry (don’t go to the temples, he tells them) but allows the eating of perfectly good food (food in itself is not idolatrous).
His reply to their question, that is, demonstrates an ability to listen to the daily workings of Corinthian life that give rise to their question, even as it shows Paul’s concern to engage the Corinthians with central convictions of Christian teaching. In this instance, as in many others, Paul’s ability to listen enables him to tailor his response for a more precise fit.
The crucial question, then, is how we learn to listen. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to listening well is distraction. There’s a sense in which distraction is obvious: even going out for lunch to talk seriously is now impossible in many places because of the TV screens that constantly clamor for our attention. Though illusions to the contrary persist, everyone should know that we cannot listen well and watch TV at the same time.