Do you ever engage with your Small Group and think, “I don’t understand this person’s perspective?” or “Why won’t they listen to my advice?” Externally, you appear to be listening along with the conversation. Internally, though, you’re wondering why others don’t understand you or go right to fix-it answers?
I have personally been on both sides of this dilemma. Listening well is a common struggle within any group context, and it can particularly impact the level of trust, vulnerability, and connection in a Small Group.
Why Small Group Listening Matters
Small Groups are a way to make a big church feel small. In a large environment with many people, a Small Group provides group members with a place of belonging where there is safety to be seen and known by one another. This means Small Group gatherings are more than just discussion times of Scriptural head knowledge. They go deeper, allowing members to apply the Word their hearts and lives. An intimate community is cultivated—like we read of in the New Testament—where people are known and transformation occurs through people doing life on life as their eyes our fixed on Christ (Col. 3:12-17). From my experience, this happens best when we are truly listening well to one another and leaving space for the Spirit to work.
According to a study from Wright State University, the average person operates at a listening efficiency rate of about 25 percent. Researchers also found that even though people think listening is an important skill, most do not think they need to improve in this area. However, to biblically encourage or admonish someone, we must first listen. Otherwise, we cannot fully understand the person’s story. We must see the person and develop a trusting relationship before we can speak truth to them they are willing to hear (Prov. 18:13).
How Listening Well Takes Place
We can only listen with a genuine heart when we live out Philippians 2:3-4 through valuing others above ourselves. We need to be present with the person sharing and be curious about what they are saying rather than thinking of a great response or perfect verse. As Proverbs 20:5 states, “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.” This takes time and intentionality.
But how do we live out listening well in our Small Group? First, we must understand that this is not a formula as much as it’s an art. However, there are steps we can take to listen better.
2 Practical Tips on Listening Well
A great first step is asking the Holy Spirit to quiet our hearts and give us minds that are curious to learn about Jesus and each other through listening. We could do this individually before Small Group meets or even as a group, praying this together to create a culture of listening.
Secondly, take notice of members who don’t often share or speak. Ask how they have been doing or if they have any thoughts on what is being discussed. Provide opportunities and time for everyone to share without force or pressure. Slow down and allow space—remembering to be slow to speak and quick to listen (James 1:19).
Words on Listening Well from Dr. Ed Welch
I started a class with Dr. Ed Welch called Helping Relationships through the Christian Counseling Education Foundation (CCEF). In the class, I have been reminded of practical skills to help increase my abilities to listen in one-on-ones as well as group settings. Welch emphasizes the importance of listening with humility and love. He stated in a lecture “Humility just simply asks.” He encourages his students to ask questions to draw people out and to be careful about giving advice to others. Advice, at times, can shut a person down when they’re sharing the depths of their heart.
Instead of offering quick-fix answers or advice, encourages us to ask people how we can be specifically praying for them and then pray together. This is an opportunity to see more into their hearts. If you aren’t quite sure how to pray or are sense that the person has more to share, it’s helpful to summarize what they’ve said. This could sound like, “Wow, this person you shared about sounds like they have been really impactful in your life—that must be devastating to watch them face cancer.” Or, you might ask a question to better understand: “How are you doing as your dear friend is sick?”
Application: Listening Well as a Small Group
As a Small Group, listening well and praying for one another can also be accomplished during the week. Check in with one another through group texting, Marco Polos, or phone calls between meetings. These little checkpoints can remind the group that your Small Group’s prayer is significant and that each other’s needs are not forgotten.
Whether in-person or digitally, this connection can help foster deeper relationships that allow for you to speak into each other’s lives. Once a member has had time to talk about their experience, thoughts, or opinions it might be appropriate for others to share their perspective, or ideas. They might have a chance to empathize through sharing a story of their own. But these responses shouldn’t be what we jump to. It may be more impactful to stop and pray together as a group, inviting Jesus into the situation.
These can also be helpful strategies when heated topics come about in Small Group. This will create a safe space for group members to share and disagree, rather than an environment that leads to an argument.
We will never be perfect at listening, but listening well is a skill we can all grow in. We can use this as an opportunity to remember we need God’s help and to stop and pray asking the Holy Spirit to give us ears to hear and understand.
Helpful Resources for Listening:
Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love by Edward T. Welch
Soul Care Matters Podcast: Episode 5 titled “Listening Well”