Learning to Listen

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At the heart of Mentoring Communities is the art of listening: wholly and holy listening.

The late, respected management guru Peter Drucker asserted that the first leadership competence is the willingness to listen. And in Leaders, Warren Bennis wrote that “The leader must be a superb listener . . . successful leaders we have found are great askers and they do pay attention.”

Yet listening has often been overlooked as a key attribute of leaders. I remember spending time with several well-known leaders when I was young in ministry. After long conversations, I realized that I knew everything they did, but they knew almost nothing about me! They never asked a question. Starting then, I determined to be a listener to others—later, I made a practice of particularly listening to younger leaders.

Listening in Mentoring

If listening is of great value for leaders in any field, it is especially so for those of us who are sensing a call to mentor younger leaders who seek guidance while serving God’s Kingdom purposes.

We are called to serve as a community of friends on the journey—followers, companions, and learners—together in the way of Christ. We are followers of Christ as our leader, and the way home to the Father. We are companions with those who seek to lead like Jesus and to lead others to him. We are learners helping each other to grow in the art of Spiritual Mentoring.

If this is our call and practice, then we indeed need to become a community of “superb listener[s]” who are “great askers” and who “pay attention.”

A central mark of our community is a commitment to help each other listen: to God, to our own hearts, and to each other.

Spiritual mentoring is not a program, a technique, or a profession. It is an art: the art of listening to and with others in the presence of Holy God.

As the Celtic spiritual leader Aelred described times of holy listening in the presence of God: “You and I are here, and I hope that Christ is between us as a third.”

Spiritual mentoring is a gift from God, for others—a gift of listening.

Spiritual mentoring is not a program, a technique, or a profession. It is an art: the art of listening to and with others in the presence of Holy God.

Like any art, Spiritual Mentoring is also a practice, an attitude of the ear, mind, heart, and soul. And we can learn through practicing the gift.

The mentoring ministry for emerging leaders is a time of listening together so together we may discern God’s calling for the mentors and the emerging leaders in the great task of world evangelization.

God Speaks, We Listen, Then We Speak

The entire Bible is the record of God speaking in human history and calling on his people to listen. Isaiah provided this remarkable insight:

The Lord GOD has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.

Isaiah 50:4-5

God wakes us first to listen, then to have a word for others. What is this word that sustains the weary? It is the word that is apt, right, timely, helpful, convicting, and sustaining. I think of many words that sustained me just when I needed them from friends and loved ones.

They came from people whose ears God had wakened and whose tongues God had instructed. In the passage from Isaiah, notice how divine guidance is offered not merely for our lives but to help our weary fellow traveler.

I know that God has given me this “word” at times for those who come for spiritual direction. I also know it has come from what I myself have learned and lived, especially through the hard times.

Learning to Listen

One of our greatest needs is to learn active and attentive listening. I like to think I am a good listener, yet I have often found it difficult to listen attentively. This is true in part because when I was a child, my mother punished me by lecturing me, often and at length, so that I learned to daydream and let my mind wander. I have learned that listening takes much practice.

If we want to be effective servants and helpful leaders, we must learn to listen to God, to those close to us, to strangers, and to our own hearts.

Listening to our own hearts. “Praying is first and foremost listening to Jesus who dwells in the very depths of your heart,” wrote Nouwen. Every day, we need to set aside some time for active listening to God.

Listening to others. This is one of the greatest gifts we can give. When I listen carefully, with thoughtful attention, not to frame a reply but to understand, I am saying, “What you think and feel is important because God takes you seriously, and so do I!”

If we want to be effective servants and helpful leaders, we must learn to listen to God, to those close to us, to strangers, and to our own hearts.

Listening in sharing our faith. Speaking skills are important in witnessing to others, but so are listening skills. An engineer described evangelism as “listening in on the conversation between someone and the Holy Spirit and speaking when given permission by that person and the Holy Spirit.” As Keith Miller put it, when we listen carefully to another, it is like running our fingers around the rim of a cup until we come to a cracked place—the place of need—where we can help them to connect to Jesus.

Listening to those we lead. As Drucker and Bennis said, the best leaders know how to listen. They don’t just talk about “my vision” but about “our vision” because they have listened, and the vision is owned and shared by others.

To listen to God in his Word and through his Spirit—to our own hearts and to others’—is crucial. Spiritual mentors must be good listeners.

So let my prayer and yours be: Lord, teach me to listen.

MaryKate Morse
MaryKate Morse

This excerpt is from Lifelong Leadership: Woven Together through Mentoring Communities by MaryKate Morse. Read an excerpt from the book here. You can purchase the book at your favorite bookstore. Order from bookshop.org, an online bookseller that supports independent bookstores. Lifelong Leadership is also available at navpress.com.

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