I would wager that a lack of trust in a small group will lead to a lack of a small group within weeks. A small group may be the only place a person has throughout the week where they do not have to live up to others’ expectations of them, and can truly be themselves. How do we foster an environment of trust where everyone feels the freedom to be vulnerable about where they are in their spiritual journey?
Many of us have probably heard more than once things we can do to foster trust: group confidentiality, sharing stories, ice breakers, sharing a meal, etc. These are all great, but after reading The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction by Adam McHugh, I am wondering if modeling a posture of listening might be the most effective way to build trust.
Sadly, our culture, including the church, rarely listens well. If I am not careful, I can believe the subtle lie that the people I lead are always looking for sage advice and love for me to pontificate. After all it is a lot easier to tell people what to do, than to listen and allow them to bring their mess and junk into my life.
When we truly listen to another, we create a space for them to fully enter into the complexities of life and allow the other to truly be herself. As Adam writes, “Good listening is always open to surprise. Listening takes seriously that other people are truly ‘other,’ that human beings are mysteries wrapped in flesh, infinitely surprising, and that no matter how long you’ve known a person you actually have little access to the deep things inside them” (The Listening Life, 149). A posture of listening is one that surrenders control, seeking to stop making another into my image, but rather allowing him to be who God created him to be. in being listened to, people feel loved, cherished, and known, are more likely to share more, and invite others to join them.
If listening is foundational to creating an atmosphere of trust, here are some tips on how to listen well.
- Ask good, open-ended questions: questions that invite exploration without a hint of control. As a small group leader, my questions should never be about getting the right answer or, and this is where I can struggle, seek to push my agenda. Rather a good question will allow each group member to explore his own ideas in freedom. Sometimes the best question you can ask is, “Can you tell me more about that?”
- Reflect back on what another just shared. In reflecting back you validate what he just shared. Also in reflection, you are trying to help the other person find the underlying emotions, values and beliefs in what she just shared.
- Make sure your bodily posture is one that shows you are listening. Make eye contact; nod; audible sounds like “uh huh,” “hmm,” or “really?” can show that you are listening; even how you sit communicates the degree to which you are listening.
I firmly believe that as people are listened to, they will trust the group more, but even more importantly they will learn to trust our Heavenly Father who always hears and listens.