2.2 Listening and Understanding
The second descriptor for engaging the community in LEA's 'Growing Deep' leadership and formation framework is listening and understanding. This descriptor involves the ability to be fully present and engaged in eﬀective dialogue with others in a way that communicates a deep respect and empathy for their circumstances, background, culture and intentions. At its deepest level it involves insightfully reading the unspoken thoughts or feelings of others and underlying assumptions, intentions or reasons for their behaviour.
Deep listening and understanding is a precious skill for all people in life as well as in education. Being fully present for others in a way that opens up the mind to truly listen to another human being as well as develop empathy and understanding for them is a great gift. Indeed, it could be called a spiritual gift where one person connects to another person, soul to soul in what could be called a holy moment.
In our school context, a deeper listening and understanding of a student is especially important when it comes to behavioural issues. Building a strong positive relationship with students, especially when they struggle is at the heart of teaching. A Stanford University study encouraged middle school teachers to take on an “empathetic mindset” when disciplining students. The study found that the number of students who were suspended across the academic year halved, from 9.6% to 4.8%. When teachers were given the opportunity to communicate their empathetic tendencies, student-teacher relationships improved. Focusing on relationships helped humanize students. In a world where we are tempted to treat students as clients, commodities or outcomes deep personal relationships where listening and understanding are present is crucial and beneficial for everyone.
Listening and understanding another human being involves the stuff that glues relationships together; empathy and graciousness. Being present for another person without judgement or agenda, showing an openness to receive what they are saying. Having patience and self-control to respond with understanding and insight are stabilizing qualities that connect us together in any relationship. In the New Testament book of James chapter one verse nineteen we hear these words; My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. How do we “be quick to listen and slow to speak?”
A helpful place to start working on our own listening and understanding is to look at the quality of our listening. Poor listeners are often unable to separate their own needs and interests from those of others. Everything they hear comes with an automatic bias: How does this affect me? What can I say next to get things my way? Poor listeners are more likely to interrupt: either they have already jumped to conclusions about what you are saying, or it is just of no interest to them. They attend to the surface of the words rather than listening for what is “between the lines.” When they speak, they are typically in one of two modes. Either they are “downloading”—regurgitating information and pre-formed opinions—or they are in debate mode, waiting for the first sign that they think that you don’t like them so they can jump in to set you straight.
In contrast, good listening, involves open-minded, genuinely interested attention to others, allowing yourself the time and space to fully absorb what they say. It seeks not just the surface meaning but where the speaker is “coming from”—what purpose, interest, or need is motivating their speech. Good listening encourages others to feel heard and to speak more openly and honestly. It involves listening, from a deep, receptive, and caring place in oneself, which leads to deeper and often subtler levels of meaning and intention in the other person. Deep Listening is an ongoing practice of suspending self-oriented, reactive thinking and opening one’s awareness to the unknown and unexpected. Deep listening also has a spiritual dimension in Christian community. We take the time to listen to others and are not quick to judge them because God displays these characteristics to us. When we practice these traits in our school communities and are encouraged by those who practice deep listening to us we are being formed in the image of God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the most famous Lutheran of the 20th century wrote in his spiritual classic on Christian community, “Life Together” the following about listening. He described ‘listening as a ministry’ and that ‘listening can be a greater service than speaking.’ Also that ‘the person who can no longer listen to his brother or sister will soon be no longer listening to God either; they will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life.’
Lord Jesus, as you listened to your heavenly Father and understood his will for your life, give us the capacity to deeply listen to the students entrusted to us. Deepen our ability to be patient and empathetic to them and their parents. Give us your Holy Spirit when we fail to listen and speak clearly and sensitively to one another. Bless us with discernment as we communicate with one another with insight. Thank you for the gift of relationship in which we can learn to truly listen to one another for understanding. Amen.
 Bonhoeffer, D., Life Together, SCM Press, London: 1954, pp.75-76
About this site
"Meditations & Musings" is my humble attempt to share what I have found useful in ministry in an Australian Lutheran School setting. It contains chapels, devotions and other resources I have written, used and adapted in my K-12 school context. If you would like to also share your ideas, resources or start a conversation about mission and ministry in your church- school location, feel free to contact me.
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