Active listening shapes understanding
Since the beginning of our work in Africa, I’ve seen the power of active listening. It was most apparent when I didn’t know what to do. For, when we don’t know what to do, we face choices: We may check out emotionally (disengage); we may speak in an attempt to inform a solution that may actually create havoc; or we may listen – actively and expectantly – anticipating that God is assuredly present in the midst of our uncertainty.
Active listening isn’t just being present with good body language, eye contact and open-ended questions, (although these physical presentations of a listening posture are helpful). Choosing active listening means choosing to explore how God has been at work before we arrived, how He is working now, and what He will continue to do when we depart.
The best active listening involves a full expectation and excitement for hearing what others have to say. When we listen actively, we trust that a group’s collective well being and understanding will be enhanced by what each person communicates. Becoming an active listener means holding your piece of the puzzle with patience. In other words, it means inviting others to develop the picture, and placing your puzzle piece at the right moment in such a way that the conversation unfolds to create a picture that reflects a shared understanding.
Around 2010, I observed as local pastors in Zambia participated in a training led by Hope for Grieving Children, one of our field partners. Pastor Vincent was one attendee who soaked up the techniques and practices shared by the facilitators. At the training, he learned how to listen better to those who are grieving and to “hear” beyond what they express with words. Furthermore, the training helped Vincent become a more effective listener by reminding him to expect that God would be present in the lives of those whom the world often forgets to hear.
Putting his learning into practice, when Pastor Vincent visited a young teenager named Nelson (pictured at left), he noticed that some things in Nelson’s life weren’t right. Despite the pride conveyed in what the family indicated about its situation, Vincent perceived that they were lacking resources in some critical areas affecting Nelson’s care.
While respecting the dignity of the family, Vincent arranged for Nelson to receive extra medical treatment and to attend a special agricultural skills program for individuals with mental health challenges. Moreover, Pastor Vincent provided spiritual counsel and support to allow Nelson the opportunity to grieve the passing of his father several years earlier, which had contributed to Nelson’s significant physical and emotional challenges.
How Forgotten Voices practices active listening
As we seek to demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ by equipping churches in southern Africa to meet the physical and spiritual needs of children orphaned by AIDS in their communities, we provide opportunities for local churches to develop a custom plan for each child (and/or family) they seek to serve.
Central to our efforts is a commitment to the posture and practice of active listening. We believe that each person we encounter – a child, a dying parent, a relative caring for children not her own, a volunteer, a pastor – has a unique story that requires a custom response, just for him or her, a precious child of God! By training volunteers to improve their active listening skills, we equip our African church partners to understand and better meet the needs of vulnerable children in their communities.
Active listening reflects the gospel!
David Mathis from “Desiring God” writes this:
Good listening goes hand in hand with the mindset of Christ (Philippians 2:5). It flows from a humble heart that counts others more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). It looks not only to its own interests, but also the interests of others (Philippians 2:4). It is patient and kind (1 Corinthians 13:4).
A Forgotten Voices partner’s custom plan may include support for education, income generation activities, skills training, home-based care or other services. However, more important than any one of these service areas is the long-lasting hope that we share by investing in faithful church leaders and volunteers who demonstrate Christ’s love by listening – and responding – to the needs and dreams of those whose voices might otherwise be forgotten.
Recently, a friend enthusiastically shared that he supports our work “because God’s Word is true.” Before connecting with Forgotten Voices, he was keenly aware of his desire to help orphaned children, but – like a lot of people – he felt limited in discovering how to do so effectively.
When it comes to serving orphaned and vulnerable kids, finding clear answers can be difficult, but God’s word is true! At Forgotten Voices, even when we don’t know exactly what to do, we know that active listening must be the foundation of our plans and partnerships if our goal is demonstrating Jesus’ love. Only then will we make space to follow the wisdom of others who know whom to serve, and how to do so best. Only then will their otherwise-forgotten voices be heard, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
-Ryan Keith, @ryanmkeith