The Chaplain's Notebook


Chaplains must remain open to whatever communication skills will best address someone’s needs and anxieties. I’ve learned that being a good leader means being a good listener. This often requires setting aside my own “agenda” and intentionally — actively — listening to what others are saying. Not only their words, but by heeding their body language and emotions.

Five years ago, while driving home, I was unfortunately pulled over in a felony stop. As deputies called out commands, ordered me to my knees on the hot asphalt and cuffed me, I realized the deputy who searched me did not realize who I was! Just as I started to explain that my LASD ID was in the driver’s door pocket, another deputy recognized me and called out, “Hey! He is one of us! Unhook him!”

As I was lifted back to my feet, I was asked, “Why didn’t you say something?” I confessed, “I just did what I was told!” Later that evening, at the station, I found out I’d been mistaken for some knucklehead in a black truck — just like mine — who had threatened to kill a parking enforcement officer. What luck!

The moral of the story? I was so grateful to the deputy who didn’t just “judge a book by its cover.” He was able to see me despite how things looked — to them, at that moment, as a fleeing felony suspect and my own nervous inability to speak.

Author Ernest Hemingway said, “When people talk, listen completely … Most people never listen.” Marketing studies show the average attention span for adults is 22 seconds! When someone finishes speaking, most people generally remember only half of what was said.

Listening is a first step toward helping people feel valued. To be good at it requires practice. It’s amazing what can happen when we allow ourselves to slow down in order to genuinely hear. Time takes on a different feel. You’ll be surprised not only by what you learn about someone else, but by what you may learn about yourself! When you set aside, for a moment, your assumptions, your habitual way of looking at the world, things look fresh and new.

Even from a “tactical” or “investigative” viewpoint, just being silent and listening may open new directions in a case that you might never have thought of. It’s astonishing what people will tell you if you listen in silence. Most feel like they need to say something. Even if that something is a confession.

Moreover, and most importantly, your family, friends and colleagues will appreciate you taking the time to hear them out. I can’t tell you how many times, after listening to someone bare their soul, they’ve said, “I sure enjoy talking to you!” And that’s after I’ve hardly said a word!

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak …” (James 1).