5 Strategies for Listening to Support Others
When I first met my wife, she was intrigued by the fact that I had taken a course in college entirely devoted to Listening. “Every man should take a course in listening!” she exclaimed. I can’t say I disagree.
The common distinction between hearing and listening is the difference between taking a passive or an active stance toward the other person. Even when we are speaking, we should be observing carefully as others respond. It’s not just about the words, but the context, culture and expression of both speaker and listener that are critical to the effort.
For now, I would like to outline a few things that set the context for listening in group meetings, and even close relationships, in such a way that supports everyone’s needs.
One of the best summaries of listening strategies I have seen comes from NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). This outline provides a basic plan to use communication skills that “AID US”:
- Affirm–“I see you feel strongly about this.”
- Inquire–“Let me ask you something.”
- Direct–“Let’s see if there is a Principle you might apply.”
- Understand–“What you are going through is terribly difficult.”
- Support–“That can get me down, too.”
In the NAMI context, each of these strategies is a step toward guiding people to the Principles of Support which form the basis of their support groups. The first goal is to make sure that the individual is heard. However, we don’t want to just leave people where they are, so we also look to encourage and empower them to take a next step. The end goal is for everyone to feel like some progress has been made, or at the least like we are “in it together” to face some common struggle.
NAMI also uses guidelines which serve as a kind of contract for group discussion. These are stated up front so as to provide a basis to get back on track when the conversation becomes less than constructive:
- Start and stop on time
- Time limit for opening stories
- Absolute confidentiality
- Be respectful
- Be mindful of others: no monopolizing or cross talk
- Keep it in the here and now
- Empathize with each other’s situation
Your group can choose from a variety of rules. Groups in some organizations even take time to evaluate the guidelines together, so as to make sure that everyone is comfortable with the process. These statements may be added or amended. While someone may ask for a one to be removed, there is usually some discussion exploring the rationale for choosing the rule in the first place.
There is value in every story. It’s about people we know and the collective insight gained for a better community. See how these ideas can be used in your church to help people connect and grow!
For more opportunities related to Christian education, small groups, and spiritual direction, check out the courses offered by The Center for Lifelong Learning.
Michael K. Thompson is the Director of Communications for Columbia Theological Seminary. After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in Physics, he served for 12 years with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Troy, NY. Before coming to Columbia, Michael was a senior manager for the Association Development Group where he managed state and national trade associations for transportation, philanthropy, and business continuity. He has been a board member for multiple local organizations including the Rensselaer Land Trust, the Cornell Alumni Association of Atlanta, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) for Rockdale and Newton Counties, and the First Presbyterian Church of Covington, GA.