Learning to Listen

Does your listening build relationships?

One of my favorite definitions of mentoring was coined by Dr. John C. Crosby, founder and executive director of the Uncommon Individual Foundation, an organization dedicated to the field of mentoring.

Mentoring is a brain to pick,

          an ear to listen,

                    and a push in the right direction.

This definition suggests three different mentoring actions. I call each action a “mentoring bent” – a form of mentoring that a mentor takes on most naturally. For example, I am at my mentoring best when I am encouraging a mentoree towards a different direction. I confront well, so to speak. Also, when a mentoree needs to brainstorm, I have a capacity to receive a lot of questions and do well in giving fairly thoughtful answers. I am a decent “brain to pick.”

And then there is listening. This is not my bent. It does not come naturally me. I love to ask a challenging question, but when it comes time to listen to the mentoree’s answer, I have to bear down and focus hard on what she is saying. I’ve had to intentionally develop new skills so that I can listen and pay attention better.

But what should I pay attention to as I listen to my mentoree? In seeking to grow as a listener, I have discovered that there are three primary reasons we listen:

  • We listen to glean the information we need to help us engage a task.
  • We listen in order to discern what needs to be corrected or fixed.
  • We listen so that we can build relationships.

Pay attention to the last one. We listen so that we can build relationships.

As a Mentoring Director at Denver Seminary, students tell me why they are eager to start meeting with their mentors. They tell me they want the type of relationship in which they can be more fully known. And at the end of their mentoring program, I ask my students what they wished they had more of or less of during their mentoring curriculum. Most say this:

I wish my mentor had asked me bigger questions.

I wish my mentor had listened more to what I had to say.

I think the way my students answer the question I posed confirms that we all might need to do a better job of listening in a way that that leads to relationship.

But what does this look like? I think one way is through mirroring. Simply put, mirroring is NOT repeating back the facts you heard. Mirroring is repeating back the underlying emotion of what is being expressed. When my mentoree tells me the events that transpired during her week, which included a failed exam, a sister who won’t speak with her, and a job that is asking more of her in the same number of work hours, I might respond by saying, “that is overwhelming.”

I am mirroring what I think is the emotion that she is experiencing. She can affirm that emotion, or she can correct me by saying, “Not so much overwhelming as it discouraging.” Regardless, in this moment she has been heard. And being heard builds the relationship. And then, once the relationship is stronger, perhaps I have earned a right to speak so I might better help her engage a task or even suggest a new way of thinking.

Relationship matters. Learning to listen is the key to getting there.

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Written by

Laura Flanders is one of our valued members of LDG’s Mentoring Development Team. She and her husband, Dale, and family have lived in the Denver area for a long time now. She is an Associated Faculty member at Denver Seminary where she teaches primarily in her role as Mentoring Director. One of her talents and loves is gardening. Follow her here on her exceptional blog, Colorado Backyard Gardener.

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