In Order to Teach, Listen.

I’ve been really out of the mood to write, cos I’m struggling a lot with just practicing what I know is true. It’s difficult to know whether I’m lacking discipline, or rationalising a failed strategy by forcing it to work. And really, it comes down to one thing: Listening.

(So I don’t really know where I’m going with this one; I’m just going to free form write and post it when I feel this is done.)

Anyway, so teaching and pastorship are two roles which require high neuroticism, meaning a high sensitivity to negative emotion. These types of people tend to be more proactive, because instead of waiting for bad things to happen, we act before it does, and create versatile conceptual if-then maps to shortcut our reactions to life’s situation. A person with low neuroticism tends to learn from experience, try things out and adapt from there, but anecdotal evidence hardly makes for a compelling or even useful set of advice. Unless the exact same situation happens, or you can somehow find the common factor between what they tell you and what you are going through, advice from experience is, well limited. Advice from concept is different, it lays out a pattern of observable experiences that have set responses. For example, “If you feel anxious, stop and breathe” is more versatile than “If you get caught skipping class, stop and breathe”; the first is true in all cases, the second is true only for that specific person at that specific time, maybe you are just not anxious when caught skipping class, who knows? Point is, this is why the people that are teaching or pastoring are generally people who are really sensitive to negative emotion.

Knowing that, we also need to define what teaching and pastoring is, and to me, its quite simple. Teaching is what you do before things happen, Pastoring is what you do after things happen; Teaching is telling someone not to get into relationships with toxic people, Pastoring is helping that fool through the breakup. God knows I’ve been both guide and guided.

So then what is the most important skill in teaching and pastoring? What makes a advice giver a really good advice giver? The difference between the guy you go to when you need support and he guy that is always talking and annoys the living shit out of everyone with his arrogance? The difference is in listening.

How pastoring and teaching works is that when a predicted situation or past situation comes up, it comes up in a very low resolution, blurry and vague way. We often can’t fully express, with words, what we think is going to happen and what has already happened. There are just too many details and we don’t know which ones are relevant. Well, that’s where listening comes in. Allowing a person to tell their story in full, clears the person’s view of the situation and makes the next course of action obvious.

There is two ways you can do this. The first one I know that I do really badly: preemptive structuring, or basically telling the person what they are thinking or what really happened. I use this a lot when I think people don’t understand the stance they are trying to defend. So for example, if I were to discuss religion with someone, I tell them what their religion actually teaches in as clear a way as possible, then respond to that instead. Likewise, if I am training juniors in my CCA or whatever, I tell them what they are thinking and the questions that they will have, and then answer that. Now, this is a hit or miss tactic, because you have to realise that you are essentially talking to yourself and the other person is watching. Now this could work if that conversation is still engaging, but if the other person cannot quickly use your explanation to clear up his understanding of his own stance, then the sheer anxiety of questioning what they thought they knew can cause people to just shut down. Of course the upside is that this is the faster method of effectively teaching and pastoring.

The second way I do a lot better. This one I normally use for more personal matters. So if I’m trying to learn of the person’s backstory, what I’m trying to do is to discover what happened with that person. I don’t see it as that I’m questioning him what he knows happened, because he may not be able to fully articulate his experience, but I ask questions in a way that cooperates with him to discover the truth together. Now this kind of questioning goes beyond just words, it is also his actions, his expressions and the environmental context. A quick flare of the nose when mentioning someone or the slightly wrinkled blue button shirt he is wearing is just as essential as the school the went to or whatever. These clues tell you things the other person may not be aware of. So questioning has to be holistic; it has to point out and analyse everything from the person’s reaction and appearance.

Now, room settings also do this very often. Heres my description of Christian places of worship:

The layout of the front area must follow either of the following formats:

  1. Seats placed beside a Table, flushed to the backdrop, with an altar Cross or Crucifix and occasionally Two Candles, a Bible, or both.
  2. Seats, flushed to the backdrop, occasionally with a Cross or Crucifix on the backdrop, behind a table, occasionally with an altar Cross, Two Candles, a Bible, or any combination of the three.
  3. Seats placed on an elevated Platform, occasionally with a Cross or Crucifix on the backdrop.

These are standard Christian prayer space and church set ups that are universal, because the people of God have discovered, long ago, that we learn as much with what we hear as what we see and feel. Therefore, these became the only acceptable ways of setting formal worship, infused with symbolic meaning. The next time you are in a church, really take a moment to take in the atmosphere and see how it helps enhance your understanding of what that church teaches.

So I guess, long story short, you need to really listen to know the specific thing that the other needs to know if you want to preemptively structure their thinking and you really need to listen and observe to pick up enough details to form the whole situation into a story, and wait for the next step to appear from that foundation.

A good conversation is not two people giving information to each other, it is two people discovering the range of all possible sets of relevant information together as a team. This is fundamental to good teaching and pastoring, because you cannot see yourself as more knowledgable or better than the person you are trying to teach or pastor; you are just his more experienced partner in exploring the situation. Always keep in mind the reality that you know things he doesn’t and he knows things you don’t; it is in realising that the path forward lies in information, that either of you has, is the key to grounded conceptual advice. Advice is something you both discover together throughout the course of the conversation, not a gift-wrapped and pre-planned set of ideas.

Lastly, don’t forget to let God pastor and teach you when you speak to him in the silence of prayer, and remember to pastor and teach yourself as you think. Remember to listen to yourself, your thoughts, your emotions and your instinct, all three make up who you are, and in an age where everyone wants to tell you your identity, it is crucial to keep grounded by simply listening to yourself and letting God listen to you. I sincerely believe all good prayers are answered in its completion, because the fact that God listened to you means that you now both know what you are thinking and experiencing, in a way that you didn’t before; and it also clarifies your motivations, because intentional and self aware prayer offered to God is proof of your trust in him. We so often want God to answer our prayers by doing the things we think we want, but the best prayers are when God heals you just by listening.

Now go and be a listening ear…

(Didn’t really follow the template and format of my usual articles, and this sounds more like a mini essay lol, but it is what it is. Hope its helpful.)

On a lighter note, as a military working dog handler, Listenig and obseving is something I really don’t do well with my dogs. We have the added problem of them not being able to talk or have actions that mean the same thing to humans, so knowing what they want or need is really difficult. Watching this batch of NS Men like dog-whisperer know how to take care of them really blew my mind.

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