NOTE; This post was originally designed to encourage youth workers to cultivate a practice of becoming better listeners. As a caregiver or activist, you probably already are honing your practice of being present with others as a listening leader.
In this amended post, I invite you to pivot from listenER to the listenEE. A healthy listening leader does not do all of the listening. The healthiest leaders also cultivate space where they, too, have permission to be human and heard.
So, who listens to you?
As you read along, I'd love for you to allow yourself the permission to consider the power of having some intentional spaces where you invite others into your life as listening leaders. Sometimes these are counselors, or spiritual directors. For some it is an AA sponsor or even a good friend.
We want to advocate for your humanity and your soul by shining light on your worth and value. Allowing yourself permission to have intentional listeners is absolutely crucial to a vital inner life.
As I have shared in previous blog posts, I grew up in youth ministry around giants who did not know (or care) that they were giants. This is the kind of wisdom they would remind us of.
In those early days I don’t have a single memory of someone driving home the point that we needed more kids to show up. I don’t recall anyone hyper-critiquing my Young Life talks to ensure they were 100% theologically accurate or delivered with perfect diction. I don’t remember having a smoke machine or the best music. I certainly don’t remember having a multi-million dollar worship space.
What do I remember?
I’ll never forget the day our Young Life area director, Reid Estes, invited me as a confused college kid to drive out to the local high school with him and visit with some kids during lunches. As we pulled into the parking lot of the high school, Reid confessed he was pretty nervous and really didn’t feel like going into lunches that day.
His vulnerability left a mark on me. His prayer was no different:
“Father, we are nervously here to visit with some folks who You know and love. May they be attracted to You in us, nothing more.”
I was struck by this moment. Here was a man—a leader—authentically confessing his fear and weakness.
It would be Reid’s tears the following summer that struck me again. Just like the trip to the high school, Reid invited me to join him as a co-leader in his cabin of high school guys at Windy Gap.
Midweek sometime, Reid invited me to play disc golf with him to check in. Over several holes, he gently floated a handful of questions that I casually answered as we meandered from hole to hole.
I remember glancing over at Reid at one point and noticed that he was tearing up. So I inquired and he simply said, “Hayne, I am so, so sorry.”
My story and my pain were as common as the rain to me but Reid appeared to be listening beneath the surface. He risked allowing my pain to affect him.
What do I remember? In other words, what made Reid a good leader?
•He was really tuned in as a listener.
•He walked with me. He stayed nearby and allowed our conversation to be the centerpiece, not the game. We walked slowly.
•He was genuinely curious and his questions were laced with compassion.
•He reflected my own pain back to me and gave me permission to begin acknowledging my neediness.
•He did not offer advice or remedies…just his quiet and gentle presence.
•He hugged me with tears in his eyes.
•He gave me permission to cry over my own story…and the stories of others.
There is nothing more nutritious to the soul than being listened to well.
It angers and saddens me to remember how ferociously I chased the idols of event-making and crowd-gathering. In the fury and frenzy of crafting the latest greatest pop-up events, I literally raced right past kids in whose eyes I saw a hunger to be heard and known. I write this with tears in my eyes even now…I really wish I had possessed the awareness to do more listening.
There is this idea that the most influence will be made on a platform, standing in front of a large crowd with a mic in your hand… I’ll be super honest. I can’t remember what any youth leader ever said from the platform under any spotlight. Not a single sentence.
What would those kids (now adults) remember about what we offered them?
•Obnoxious program budgets?
•Random event promos and flyers?
•Packed parking lots?
•Stuffed youth rooms?
•Millions of pieces of pizza?
None of these are bad or evil. And I know I did some listening in there along the way. Maybe even some good listening. I grieve not having done more of it. I mean…I feel like I should write letters of apology to former students for being so unavailable.
How To Be a Listener
There is a great book that every human should push to the top of their reading lists. It could even be called “Being Human 101.” The actual title is The Lost Art of Listening, and it’s written by Michael Nichols.
Let this wisdom land on you…
“When we attempt to listen we can impart to the speaker our unawareness of hearing them, by the shift of our the eyes, our glance away, letting our eyes glaze over, looking around, or interrupting them to speak to someone else. All of these signals leave the speaker knowing they have not been heard.
Not being heard limits our responsiveness in all areas of our living. We long to be understood by someone listening to and hearing us, with understanding and compassion. We become stronger when we are recognized. The simplest things can trigger a sense of rejection, even an unreturned phone call.”
Do you want to know something? Listening is good for students. It’s good for you too. Listening cultivates empathy in the listener. It provides a context for noticing. It catalyzes discovery. It promotes vulnerability. It helps eradicate shame.
Ed Dobson frames it for us simply and beautifully.
“It is one broken person talking to another broken person. And there is power in that.”
How To Lead as a Listener
Allow me to offer three simple suggestions:
1) Begin with one
There is no earthly way to listen effectively to more than one student at a time. Let that be a word of freedom. You don’t have to be superhuman. Live within your means and be with kids one at a time…even in a crowd. Especially in a crowd.
Recently in a leader meeting with youth leaders, one middle-aged woman whose large heart for students could not be restrained spoke up…
“How do I offer this kind of empathic listening to the girls in our small group when there are as many as 40 girls showing up this year?”
I think you’ll see the answer slowly lift off the page. Begin. With. One.
2) Be yourself
When opportunities present themselves, avoid the temptation to be anyone other than who you really, really are. Teenagers can quickly sniff out a fraud. And they are quick to flock to someone who is willing to honest, open and vulnerable.
There is this idea that the most influence will be made on a platform, standing in front of a large crowd with a mic in your hand. I chased it for years. Like a dog chasing his own tail.
I’ll be super honest. I can’t remember what any youth leader ever said from the platform under any spotlight. Not a single sentence.
But I can tell you intimate details of moments when one of my youth leaders sat with me and simply listened. I can even remember what we talked about. I can remember their questions. I can remember the expression on their face. I can remember how it made me feel. Human. Normal. Loved.
3) Be there fully
When a student begins to speak with you…relax. Make eye contact. Be careful not to divert your eyes to more interesting things happening in the background. Lean into the conversation. Linger. Rest easy. Be grounded in that space.
So when your next event is over…
…and the crowd clears out…
…and the fluorescent lights get turned on…
…and all of the mess is cleaned up…
…and all the leaky trash bags get hauled down to the dumpster…
…and the doors are all locked up behind you…
…and you head out to your car under the glimmer of street lights…
…and on the drive home you start to evaluate the evening’s agenda…
…can you confess that you have done more listening than being listened to?