Listening as Ministry
Derek Rowntree did something early on in Learn How to Study: Developing the study skills and approaches to learning that will help you succeed in universitythat got me thinking about empathy. He convinced me in his introduction that he truly cared about my success as a student. He even expressed his desire to personally coach me through this book. I think we would meet over coffee if we could and discuss all my challenges as a student.
Empathy is a loaded word for me. Over ten years ago this word came up on the top of my Strengths Findersresults. How disappointing. I had not studied this word much but did already hold a couple of negative assumptions. Mostly, I understood it to mean weakness. As an aspiring organizational leader, I did not see how this would aid me in my quest. Surely it would hinder and not enhance my leadership.
So what was I to do? Obviously the only mature next move would be to retake the assessment. But this time, I would intentionally answer the same questions more caustically. I attempted my best ‘I don’t care about you or your life’ attitude hoping it would result in a more laudable top strength. Perhaps strategic? Or whatever the strength that means ‘able to kick butt and make hard decisions no matter the cost’?
And what was the top result from this second round of Strengths Finders?
This led to a minor breakdown, which then led to a pivotal conversation with someone I highly regarded. And he said something revolutionary to me. He said that empathy is strong not weak because empathy gives insight. Empathy does not mean you cannot make a difficult decision but that you understand the impact of such decisions when your empathy is engaged. Thus the decision can be delivered in a way that can minimize the collateral damage.
I have never needed to be more thoughtful about empathy than now. I mean right this very hour. My daughter is nearly fourteen. We leave today for a trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway and are staying in Asheville, North Carolina. I am sitting next to her on a plane. And I am asking God to help me practice empathic listening on these days away.
Stephen Covey asserts in his The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Peoplethat most of our listening is about responding instead of understanding. I know this is often true of me. In ministry I know that when people are struggling, rarely will a verbal response make a difference but feeling connected to another human makes a difference every time. And yet is is a challenge to practice.
Partly I write on this subject this week because I have struggled to use my empathy strength at home. Many people over the years have benefited from it at church. But there is a deepening desire in me that those I live most closely with would get my best. I do not just want to exhort and teach my knowledge to my daughter (although I really believe I have a few helpful things to share :). I want to understand her better. I want to convince her of how I am on the journey with her, cheering her on. I am painfully learning that all my preaching and teaching, while well-intentioned, shuts the connection process down with her. Covey says that “When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.”
I was genuinely and personally served by this book because Rowntree has become a student of students. Over and over again he proved his care by asking questions and using the guided reflection format. He asks ‘What do you think?’ ‘Do you agree?’ and ‘Does that make sense?’ And the quotes from students shows that he has listened over and over again to students throughout the years. And he cares enough about what they have to say to include their words throughout the book he is writing. It is clear their words and experiences have shaped his material. How wise.
I am going to go practice some empathic listening now.
Derek Rowntree, Learn How to Study: Developing the Study Skills and Approaches to Learning That Will Help You Succeed in University — a Virtual Tutorial With Professor Derek Rowntree, 6 ed. (Amazon Digital Services : Kindle Edition, 2016).
Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. [Rev. ed.]. New York: Free Press, 2004.
Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. [Rev. ed.].
9 responses to “Listening as Ministry”
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In the day and age we live in, I think those we know how to employ and practice empathy will be the great leaders we all look too! Gary Vee is a big-time voice for the Millenials and younger people coming up and preaches kindness and empathy (along with hard work), and they treat him like a god. How much more so those of us in the church be preaching and living the same things but pointing people to God. Thanks for the reminder that listening is the first step in leading!
Mario – thanks for Gary Vee lead. I haven’t heard of him. I have been thinking about vulnerability and transparency in ministry for some time – I see the younger generation craving it and wonder what the limits should be with it as leaders. Maybe we can pick this conversation up about what this looks like on a bus in London. 🙂
Fair warning, he is New York through and through (meaning has a potty mouth) but underneath that is wisdom (at least to the masses). Yes, that sounds like a London bus convo!
I love your description of Rowntree as a “student of students.” Your perspective on empathic teaching is really valuable. It seems we are most impactful as leaders when we elevate the input and experiences of others. I wonder what our leadership would look like if we took more time to become a student of those we lead. How do you practice this, Andrea?
Great post, Andrea! I had all of our supervisors take the EQi test and we discovered every one of us was lower on empathy than the norm and the coach was quite concerned. I’m happy to say we have since improved. I believe your friend was absolutely right about the effects of empathy on decision making.
As I read your post I wonder how empathy even effects my approach to learning. Am I empathetic with myself? I will be pondering that now.
Andrea, I think your insight is great on the book on Learning to Study by Rowntree. I did not think about the fact that he cared about students in order to write this book. One of the things he mentioned in surveying a book was to try to find out why the author had written the book. I think if I looked at the fact that Rowntree was trying to help me, I think the book would have taken on another meaning. I tend to focus on facts, and I know that can be a weakness in that I can miss those human touches. Thanks for reminding us of what’s important.
I remember being in 7th grade sitting in the school counselor’s office (for some reason that I can’t remember) asking her why I felt so sad for my friend who was going through a rough time and having her tell me it was empathy and it was a good thing. Ever since then I’ve understood empathy as a good thing and I’ve used it to the best of my ability. That being said, using it with my kids has been like pulling teeth. I want to understand them, but really we don’t have time right now and they need to get in the stinking car so we can get to rugby practice on time. My greatest ideals as a parent fall by the wayside of time. But that’s the thing about empathy and listening it takes time and we need to prioritize it or time will devour us and our empathetic ideals.
Sean – I love your honesty about your kids. Why is it so hard???!! And your honesty reminded me of the truth that we admire people for their strengths but we connect with people over their struggles.
And I appreciate the reminder that adults have the power to help frame some of these concepts for kids like your guidance counselor. Blessings to you and your home, friend!
A very personal reflection Andrea. Though I have to say, I am disturbed that you felt smaller as a leader with the gift of empathy. So, as a person on the receiving end of capable empathisers, I think you are the best people in the Kingdom of God. You feel with people – you give words to others people’s unformed feelings – you make sense of people’s experiences – you are guides to peaceful hearts; and seriously, there is no greater gift than a peaceful heart in a world of chaos. NEVER (notices the shouting), underestimate your value to the world of leadership.
Rowntree’s other book is very cool too, “Assessing Students: How Shall We Know Them”, I’ve had a look and it’s actually a great leadership tool because it helps teachers to understand the students they are teaching. Understand (empathise) and lead them to learning and growth, seems to be his mantra. Which of course is the mantra of pastoral teaching and ministry. A journey of understanding others, learning from them and leading them in return, is the journey of the best kind of leadership – no matter the context.