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What Every Leader Needs to Know About How to Listen Deeply

by | May 28, 2024

As missionaries, our daily lives are often so filled with all we have to do, we can struggle to make space for deep listening. Whether it be with our spouse, kids, teammates, or those we serve, for many of us, we tend to rush through conversations, eager to fix problems and move on to the next task. 

The idea of slowing down to listen feels impossible. But how many times have we answered the same person’s same questions over and over, seeing no change? How much time does that take? 

What if you could “go slow to go fast?” A little more time spent in deep listening could save you hours down the road, cut down on frustration, and build stronger, more meaningful relationships.

In a recent podcast interview with Master Certified Coach and founder of Promised Land Living, Cheryl Scanlan, she unpacked how to cultivate deep listening and how to discover what your default listening style is.

Observing Before Listening

Deep listening begins with observation. Before we even hear a word, we need to observe the person in front of us. This involves suspending all judgment and simply noticing. No assuming. No curiosity yet. Just noticing.

A great place to practice this skill is anywhere there is great people watching–at the market, airport, walking down the road, or wherever that place is for you. Make it your goal to observe as many details as you can about a person while withholding judgment. 

Notice a person. What are they wearing? How is their posture? What are they carrying? What is their facial expression? How is their energy?

The Power of Presence

Next, you get to move from noticing people you don’t know to noticing people you do know. Ask these same questions when you see someone you serve, a child, or a teammate. 

Now, as you begin to speak to each other, notice what they say and how they say it. Pay deep attention to the first sentence or two that comes out their mouth. It’s more than just a greeting or small talk. There is way more information there than we usually realize.

And beyond gathering information, just being present to the other person––truly listening without interrupting or inserting yourself will communicate deep care and love.

There’s an old African phrase, “Sawubona,” which means “I see you.” This greeting, exchanged when someone enters a community, acknowledges the person’s presence and worth. When we adopt a posture of “Sawubona,” we communicate to the other person that they are seen and valued. This act of recognition is the first step in deep listening.

Imagine the impact of suspending all sense of hurriedness and agenda for just two minutes. By being fully present—making eye contact, and focusing entirely on the person before us—we create a space where meaningful conversation can flourish. These initial moments set the stage for a deeper, more authentic connection.

The Gift of Receiving

Often, we think of listening as something we do for others. But true listening is a gift for both the listener and the speaker. By being fully present, we open ourselves to receiving as much as we give. 

Arrogance says, “I’m here to give to them. They are here to ask me for advice. I have nothing to receive from them.” It may feel that way, but it’s not true. That attitude keeps us from receiving. Jesus taught people, but he also was always listening. As you read through the gospels, notice the way he listened to others. Notice how he even received from little children.

How much do we miss because we are thinking about what we want to say next or how to fix their problem as quickly as possible? What if we treated the other person as someone who has a gift for us? What if we really believed it? Ask God, what is the gift this person has to give me, and can you please help me listen long enough to receive it?

The Difference Between Closed and Open Listening

If you are seeing yourself in any of what you’ve read so far and want to grow, you are wanting to move from closed listening to open listening.

​​The difference between open and closed listening revolves around the mindset and approach we take when engaging in conversations with others.

Closed listening styles, where we only hear our own voice and interpret others’ words through our biases, can be detrimental–hurting us and others. We lose out on genuine connection, miss important information, and deform our own character. Deep listening, on the other hand, is an open stance that invites relationship and mutual respect.

What is Closed Listening?

In closed listening, you’ll see these characteristics dominate:

  1. Self-Focused Interpretation: In closed listening, anything the other person says is quickly interpreted through the listener’s own perspective, leading to distorted understanding.
  2. Judgmental and Assumptive: Closed listeners tend to make quick judgments and assumptions about what the other person is saying, often based on their own agenda or biases.
  3. Control and Authority: This style often involves trying to control the conversation, leading it in a direction that suits the listener rather than truly engaging with the speaker’s needs or perspectives.
  4. Lack of Genuine Engagement: The focus is on getting to a conclusion or solution quickly, rather than truly understanding and connecting with the other person.

What is Open Listening?

Open listening, on the other hand, involves a more expansive, other-centered approach that fosters genuine connection and understanding. 

It looks like this:

  1. Presence and Observation: Open listening starts with being fully present, observing the other person without judgment, and noticing their non-verbal cues and emotions.
  2. Curiosity and Inquiry: Open listeners engage with genuine curiosity, asking open-ended questions and encouraging the other person to express themselves fully.
  3. Mutual Respect and Value: This style values the other person’s perspective, seeing them as an individual with unique insights rather than a problem to be solved.
  4. Slowing Down: Open listening involves slowing down the pace of conversation to truly absorb and understand what the other person is saying, rather than rushing to a conclusion.

From Closed to Open Listening: Biblical Examples

Which of these biblical characters who exemplified closed listening styles do you most identify with?

  • The Sadducees: Only believed what they could see, dismissing anything outside their immediate perception.
  • King Herod: Steamrolled over others to maintain control and avoid conflict.
  • The Pharisees: Allowed their agenda to overshadow genuine connection, focusing on appearance over the heart.
  • The Israelites: Pessimistic and doubting, always expecting the worst.
  • The Sanhedrin: Made quick judgments without verifying their assessments, becoming judgmental rather than judicial.
  • Pilate: Washed his hands of responsibility, avoiding engagement and not investing in the conversation.

Each of these styles represents a way of listening that hinders true connection. By contrast, open listening involves celebrating truth, guarding truth, speaking truth, and discerning truth.

Steps to Cultivate Deep Listening

To shift from closed to open listening, we can:

  1. Recognize Your Style: Identify your default listening style. Are you a problem-solver, an interrupter, or someone who tunes out when others speak? 
  2. Practice Presence: Commit to being fully present in your conversations. Make eye contact, and give the speaker your undivided attention for at least two minutes.
  3. Observe Objectively: Before forming opinions, observe the person and their behavior without judgment. This helps you engage with genuine curiosity.
  4. Ask, Don’t Assume: Instead of assuming you know what the other person needs, ask open-ended questions. This shows that you value their perspective and are open to understanding their needs. Don’t assume you know what they are going to say or what they mean, even once they say it.
  5. Reflect and Respond: Before offering solutions, reflect on what the person has said. Mirror their thoughts back to them to ensure understanding and provide a thoughtful, considered response.
  6. Embrace Mutual Respect: Value the other person’s perspective and see them as a unique individual, not just a project.

What Are Your Next Steps?

Where are you in your listening journey? Are you viewing conversations as tasks to complete or opportunities to connect? How can you slow down and be fully present in your interactions? Take time to reflect on your listening style, pray for guidance, and commit to practicing deep listening. Your relationships—and your ministry—will be transformed.

In the end, deep listening is about more than just hearing words. It’s about seeing the person, valuing their story, and engaging with them in a way that reflects Christ’s love. So, let’s listen well, love deeply, and build the Kingdom together.

Cheryl Scanlan, MCC is the founder of Promised Land Living, a 12-week discipleship group coaching experience that will transform your relationship with God, yourself, and others. There are several groups uniquely created with missionaries, expats, and global workers in mind. Reach out on the PLL website to find out more.

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