February 05, 2020
Well-loved broadcasters David & Karen Mains launch their 23rd podcast discussion: The architecture of listening groups is designed to provide a safe and regular place where people know they will be fully heard and understood.
Karen: I am passionate about the listening process. And I think it’s one of the great gifts we can give to people in the world. And last podcast we talked about how important it is to feel heard and understood. So as my little group of friends who are all in ministry, some of them are women who are ordained or they’re spiritual counselors.
David: Would others say that you are a good listener? To be asked that question kind of out of the blue, a good take some thought. Let me ask it one more time. Would those who know you fairly well say that you are a good listener? What do you think?
Intro: Welcome to the Before We Go podcast featuring Dr. David Mains and his wife noted author Karen Mains. Here’s David at Karen Mains.
David: Last visit on Before We Go, I more or less interviewed my wife, Karen about the importance of listening and what having someone really listened to them does for people. I felt good about all that she was saying and me not talking as much because she is passionate on this topic, but we got to the end Karen. And I had this feeling that we may have used some terms or you did that people might not understand. For example, we talked about listening groups. And I think it would be good to define that and talk about it a little bit more.
Karen: I am passionate about the listening process. And I think it’s one of the great gifts we can give to people in the world. And last podcast we talked about how important it is to feel heard and understood. So as my little group of friends who are all in ministry, some of them are women who are ordained or they’re spiritual counselors. We formed a little group called Hungry Souls and we began to test spiritual growth tools. And we would say to our friends who are on our list, “We don’t really know what we’re doing here. Come help us find out.” So, I had read about spiritual leadership or spiritual direction in small growth groups. I wasn’t so much interested in the spiritual direction part. That’s a people are often trained to be spiritual directors. They’ve gone to some of them for two or three years of training.
David: They’re wonderful.
Karen: Those are wonderful. But I was interested in that as much as what happens in a listening group process. So, we began to design what I call an architecture. But let me give you a definition for listening groups. And this happened as the group came in help to discover what we were doing.
David: So, you were kind of flying by the seat of your pants.
Karen: Not quite, but almost. So, the architecture of the listening groups is designed to provide a safe and regular place where people know they will be fully heard and understood. So how do we do that? So let me just describe what a listening group looks like and then I can talk about my experience with it because we ran these for seven years.
David: And how many groups?
Karen: I’m not sure how many groups there were 250 people involved in all.
David: So, this is a large experiment.
Karen: Yeah, it was a large experience. Now the listening groups were three and four people and then one gal said to me “I did the math you couldn’t possibly have had 250 people because the listening groups went for seven months.”
David: How often did they meet?
Karen: They met once a month. When I was starting I had like five listening groups going at one time but I would use the concept of the listening groups and try them in retreats with 90 people for a weekend or something like that. So that boosted my numbers up a little bit larger. So, this is what we designed a listening group to look like and this came after some trial and error as we again redo them and discuss how they were working and how we could improve them. Each group is made up of three to four people.
David: Is that with the leader?
Karen: Yes the leader..
David: Is one of the persons?
Karen: If there’s time.
Karen: Basically, I’m I as a leader in a group would move the group along and keep it functioning make sure it stayed within the description that we had designed. But if there was time then I would share as well. Now the interesting thing was even when I didn’t share, I felt listened to when I’ll talk about that later. Everyone is given the same amount of time to share. One person may act as a gentle timekeeper.
David: Just to help me a second. When are you meeting?
Karen: Doesn’t matter. It can be morning, noon, night, whenever.
David: So, these are all women.
Karen: They’re women. It can be men and women. Yeah.
David: Mixed group.
Karen: Yeah, I have had one mixed group. It was a great group and then you experimented with some men’s group and I think I should have been there to probably.
David: Probably, you should have. Maybe men aren’t as good at listening. I don’t know where I’m not as good at leading.
Karen: Well, you hadn’t been in one so you know it wasn’t really fair.
David: Okay so let’s say this is an evening group and it meets once a month.
Karen: Once a month.
David: And you have either three or four people plus yourself.
Karen: So, we begin by centering.
David: Oh, just one second. Where are you meeting?
Karen: In our home. It can happen in an office. It can happen anywhere.
David: So that’s irrelevant.
Karen: As long as it’s not in a place where you are interrupted. And I think actually you could do this in a busy place. A cafeteria, a coffee shop where you had a little table into yourself. Although I don’t think that would be ideal. The group begins by going into silence. We center ourselves in silence and in silent prayer. “Lord help me to be open to this. Let me hear your voice speak.” After four or five minutes someone is invited to be to speak by the timekeeper and I might say “Okay think we’re ready. Who is ready to share”? And then that person takes like 15 minutes maybe 20 minutes. Sometimes if there’s a crisis or a stress point in their lives, they’ll take a little bit longer and the group is agreed about letting them take the time they need. But I don’t let them go over 20 minutes. They don’t talk for 45 minutes.
David: So, “they” means an individual.
Karen: An individual yeah.
David: And if there is no crisis, they what do they talk about?
Karen: Well just a second. I’ll get to that. You’re going ahead of my notes here. Some folks don’t have an instinct on time and so it’s perfectly appropriate to remind them that they are coming up to time. “You were almost done out. You know do you have more that you want to say, or can you pull it in pull it and finish up”? No one else speaks the whole time those people are talking that one person is talking. We don’t interrupt them We don’t you know, they may have stress in their lives, but you don’t interrupt them. Church-related people often want to go and give them scripture and comfort them and pray with them or say or get little Sermonette.
David: Okay, just a question. I’m trying to picture this sometimes does someone cry.
Karen: Oh, yeah tears a lot very often There are tears. I mean they’re bringing real life into this, and you never know when a listening group starts.
David: Do these people know each other, Karen?
Karen: Not the ones I’ve run. None of them know one another.
Karen: Okay. They just sign up and they sign up when they can make it.
David: So, did they pay for this?
Karen: Not me. Not an experimental thing.
David: That’s probably no. Okay, they didn’t pay anything. Okay, it’s unfolding better, but I’m glad we’re taking this time.
Karen: Yeah, so again that that point was that no one interrupts that speaker. When that person is speaking, they know they will not be interrupted.
David: Okay, and that’s really answering a question in my mind I don’t want to sidetrack, but it means your meeting is going to be something like two and a half hours.
Karen: Two and a half hours. Just about yeah.
David: Thanks. Okay. I got it right.
Karen: Do the math. So, when that speaker is finished, then the group goes back into silent prayer.
David: For how long?
Karen: We sort of watch that person’s talking with just silence and when we go into silence and generally that allows us to think about what we’ve heard.
Karen: Sometimes the silence is broken by the speaker who says, “I need to share one more thing.” That speaker may call of a sudden that there’s something they need to share that they didn’t share or “I have nothing more to say.” And then I as the guardian of the architecture is what I call myself? Invites questions from the group. Now see the speaker has spoken, we go into silence and then I ask the group if they have any questions and that is the only way they can respond. This is the hardest part for all of the people who’ve been in the group. When that speaker is done the rest of the group can respond but only with questions. The group attempts to ask open-ended questions, ones that they don’t know the answer to.
David: So, you can’t say, “Would you like to hear what my counsel would be in terms of what you’ve said”?
Karen: We have a lot of funny things that have it, or have you read the book Beyond Borders, Without Borders, something like that.
David: So why would that be a bad question?
Karen: Well because, well that’s not a leading question as much as, but it takes the question session to a sort of a literary review or book review.
David: So, you’re wanting them to ask questions about what has been said?
Karen: Open-ended questions about what they have heard and what that person has said.
David: Open-ended, I’m not sure I know what that is.
Karen: Well, I don’t know, I might say, “How did you feel when that happened”? Because I don’t know how they felt.
Karen: Okay, I’m asking some serious questions.
David: So, you don’t have an agenda?
Karen: I don’t have an agenda.
David: You’re trying to listen.
Karen: Right, I’m basically listening and encouraging them to define more through our questions.
David: Was the group good at this?
Karen: That’s the hardest part for people to, first of all, just to ask questions. And one of the things I teach is when you heard after the person who’s been sharing stops speaking, you go into the silence and then you listen and see the Holy Spirit begins to nudge you with questions. And those questions that come up from the Holy Spirit, I remember from our deepest inner selves, for those who don’t function on a, you know, Christian spirituality language level, those deep nudges are often very profound questions. So, when we rush in, we don’t have, in conversation, we don’t, and don’t listen to what we have heard, again after the person has done speaking. We don’t often come to those profound questions that get asked. So, I as the timekeeper or the keeper of the architecture keeps an eye on the clock or wristwatch or cell phone, allotting about one half hour to each person and the questioning of them. After that questioning is completed, the group goes back into silence for several minutes. Okay?
David: I’m with you.
Karen: So, let’s just, we’ve only had one person speak so far.
David: Well, and people have asked questions.
Karen: People have asked questions. We’ve watched it before, after they’re done speaking, we’ve gone into prayer. We ask questions that come out of that silence. And then we go into silence again. And then when I feel like we’ve been silent enough, we move on to the next person. That’s why with three or four people, it takes about two and a half hours with that whole sequence for each person taking about half an hour.
David: Sometimes the person who shared intimately are the in tears and we just let them keep crying or what?
Karen: Yes, we do. We just allow them to feel the emotions that they need to feel because often rushing in giving little sermonettes or “There, there, there, bye, bye, bye, I feel so terrible for you”, interrupts their process. And we don’t understand that in common discourse. I mean, we mean well, but yet in the listening group, it was it was never awkward. It was extremely appropriate just because they…
David: Why? Well, they, because you were guarding it?
Karen: No, because we were doing this in a practice of silence, in a listening practice that came out of silence. And they knew that there were profound things that would happen if they would just let the moment be.
Karen: Okay, not interrupt.
David: So, we’re on to person number two.
Karen: Yes. Same thing, I assume. Yes, and then we repeat that process for all three people and if there’s time depending on how long each person has taken, then I will do it.
David: I think it would be best to go first.
Karen: Not really. It doesn’t really matter because very often someone is in crisis and the group will just naturally, out of difference for that person’s need and distress, allow them to even take a little bit longer and then people sort of adjust. It’s just a really lovely, lovely to watch this happen.
David: So, I’m assuming in a lot of ways that the silence is kind of a glue apart from spiritual things.
David: The presence, maybe it’s the silence that allows for the presence of the Lord to be felt.
Karen: Yes, it is. And I think because I’m innately Christian to my very core that God functions in all of our actions when we give Him a moment to do so, whether we believe in Him or not, because He’s love and because He cares for us. Now, when we’re all done,
David: All three or four people.
Karen: All three or four people and we’re about ready to go, if we have 10 to 15 minutes left, then we debrief. We open it up and say, “Is there anything anyone more would like to say? Or did you observe something in this listening group process that you’d like to share with the group? Has this worked for you? What is the hardest part of the time together? How can we improve”? And then we attempt to end on time. But if there is time, we allow for a debriefing session. Those are always very healthy. And they’re fun too, because people will say, “Oh, I had no idea. Oh, wow. Well, we were talking.” And in that silence, I realized that there was an urgent question I needed to ask when it was time. So, they go away really high on the process. I think I mentioned before that I had a friend…
David: Need to ask a question, if you don’t mind. They have no contact with each other before or after they didn’t know each other ahead of time?
Karen: These groups that I ran didn’t, because my list was large from around the area where we lived, but not necessarily people who were in the same church group together, knew one another as neighbors. They were all strangers to one another.
David: You know, just I’m fixing in my head because I’m trying to picture this. They meet once a month.
Karen: Once a month.
David: And that’s for how many months?
Karen: We went for seven months, which is a long enough time because you are only meeting once a month. Now, there would be nothing wrong with meeting twice a month. That’s not a problem. I’ve not done that, but it’s not a problem. I just think that the human pathway, you know, our lives shift and change in over a period of seven months was just one meeting per month. There’s enough time to get the life stuff in. The interesting thing was that as people drove to my house because they were not close, they were maybe 20 minutes away, maybe half an hour away. Again, my list is large. They would take a lot of time in that car ride to think about what is that I’m going to share today. So that car ride was even a transit for them from their busy real life worlds to a place of silence and sanctuary. Now, I wanted to mention again that I was talking about this with a friend, and she is a professional counselor, credentialled. And so, I invited her, I said, “I’m just seeing so much maturation going on, real growth.” I know if someone were in counseling would take, once you discover something about yourself in counseling that needs to be worked at, professional counseling, I am told that it takes about six months for you to integrate that into your living. But I was watching it happen much faster in the listening groups. “So, would she come and be a participant”? So, she came and sat down as a participant, great gal. And afterwards we were talking about the growth group experience and through listening, the listening growth groups. And she said, “Do you know how fast that group reach safety”? Because she leads therapy groups all the time.
David: I’m hearing, but I’m not sure I’m understanding. Reach to safety. Oh, you mean, you feel safe.
Karen: Feel safe.
David: That nobody’s going to rat on you.
Karen: You’re not nervous about being in this group of strangers, people you don’t know. And I said, no, I don’t, I’m not sure. She said “They hit it in the first session.”
Karen: So, you know, we knew we were on to something that was very powerful and could have an extraordinary positive impact in people’s lives. I love listening groups. I haven’t run any for probably the last four or five years. And I was thinking as we were talking about this, I’d like to get some going again. They were just super.
David: Were you a key to it, Karen? Could anybody do what you did?
Karen: Okay. Good, good question. So, I did training for listening group leaders.
David: Where did you get that?
Karen: My team and I designed training for listening group leaders. And I would say that of the 20 people who came to be trained, maybe one was really capable of carrying it off. And they’d been in listening groups, one or two. So I haven’t unpacked that there’s something about the gifts of the leaders that is important.
David: So just putting anyone in charge doesn’t work?
Karen: Even when they’ve had like an afternoon of training.
David: That’s pretty fascinating.
Karen: So, at this point in time, I would probably invite a professional to come with me.
David: Ask “What am I doing that others don’t seem to be able to do?
Karen: What I do that others don’t know how to do intuitively or instinctively? Their gifts aren’t in that direction.
David: How do you know that these others didn’t, it didn’t work? Because they said so?
Karen: Well, they quit their groups halfway through or something. Yeah, something that just was not working for them.
David: Were you involved watching those other groups?
Karen: No, I wasn’t observing. And that would be a flaw on my part because I’m not a professional psychological counselor who’s had that kind of training where those sorts of things go on and I would need to work with a professional in order to do that really well. So that would be a gap. I suspect that it’s a person who is intuitive, who feels comfortable with silence. who perhaps has some personal authority that the group can trust that they know what that person knows what he or she is doing. But it is an open-ended area where I need to, if I’m going to continue with this, correct or figure out how leaders need to be trained so that they feel comfortable leading listening groups. It doesn’t sound all that difficult, does it, to do that. But it is the problem for some.
David: I would be upstairs in my study some of the nights. Some of the nights I would try to stay away at the office wherever, so that I didn’t interrupt. But one of the things that I noticed, even though it was silent, was that you laughed a lot.
Karen: Which may have been part of the comfort level for other folk. Yeah.
David: I don’t know, but that’s fascinating. The group always laughed a lot. I was thinking, I’m hearing crying, but I’m also hearing people laughing.
Karen: Well, when you share all those things there.
David: So, let’s kind of wrap up. What did you learn through all of this?
Karen: Well, I learned, as I started to say, that listening groups can provide a safe and regular place where people know they will be fully heard and understood. And again, I’m not going into the brain science on this because it did kick me into what happens in the brain that we’re having so much impact through a listening, a simple listening group process. And again, as we said before, when a person feels heard and understood, which is exactly what goes on in the group, it’s designed to do that. The listening group is designed to do that. Then the brain actually stimulates all the areas of the brain that are comfortable with human attachment without getting deep into the science. The brain is affected by this listening process. I had gals who had severe noticeable neuroses, for instance, who within the course of those seven months came to recognize their problem, came up with a design to correct their behavior and had built their problem by the end of those seven months. So, this is not normal.
David: You’re talking about in a positive way.
Karen: In a positive way that most people deny they have a problem. They’re in denial. But that means that the brain has been stimulated in the kinds of ways that allow it to heal personality, the personality, the person that that brain belongs to. That’s pretty powerful stuff, I think.
David: I have a feeling that one of the lessons that was learned was that people discovered that sometimes it was good not to talk all the time. That you have this impulse, “Is that something I really need to say”?
Karen: Yeah, I need to be more careful about. We would have a lot of them say, “I used to think I was a good listener.” I mean, I did surveys afterwards as far as people giving me their response to the listening groups. And they would say, “I used to think I was a great listener and I realized I was not a great listener at all. But after the listening groups, I have become a much better listener.”
David: That’s huge.
Karen: Yeah, that’s huge.
David: Are you a good listener?
Karen: I’m not as good of a listener as you are.
David: But I’ve never led listening groups. I think I am a good listener.
Karen: But what you do, David, is you do the hardest thing. You ask questions. You are a man who goes through life asking questions of others, gentle, sometimes challenging questions, but mostly questions who say this man is really interested in knowing the answer. And that’s huge. There are very few people who do that. You do it with the kind of gentleness and concern and interest that you give. So, because of that natural bend in your personality, I mean, I’ve learned to be that way myself because of you.
David: I didn’t used to be that way.
Karen: But you have an instinct for it, which is just…
David: Over the years, I think the Lord has helped me in my area.
Karen: Beautiful. So, I would say that you’re the better listener of the two of us.
David: Next time we get into a hassle, I’m going to remind you.
David: I could hardly wait. In this noisy world, we would all do well to develop the skill of being good listeners. Does that summarize it?
David: It’s hard to summarize it.
Karen: No, that’s excellent.
David: I just… this real fast question. And I thought about this as you were talking. Do you think Jesus was a good listener?
Karen: Oh, I didn’t… you know, I’ve gone through the scriptures on listening and I don’t have them with me, but I’ve taken out a whole bunch of them that say, “Listen to me, listen well.” I mean, that comes right out of scripture.
David: Well, that sounds like a preacher.
Karen: You listen to what I say. It’s from God. So, I think that was that important to him. That’s something he’s created in our nature because we are made in his image. So, I think that it is very important to him.
David: I’m thinking of Jesus picking up on what people are saying, not just the blind beggar hollering out, even though there’s a crowd all around. He heard certain people, but he heard what the disciples were talking about. I think I’m bigger than you in the status line here. And then he spoke to it. He was very sensitive to what people are saying. Well, he listened to his father in heaven too. That’s a good question to explore. I don’t know the answer.
Karen: Yeah, it would be good to explore. There’s not a doubt in my mind about what he was a good listener, but I can’t prove text to them.
David: Another one of those areas that you are fascinating to me as a wife, you’re always exploring different areas. Loneliness is something you’ve been talking about. And loneliness relates to listening, being heard, being understood. So I’ve reserved one more podcast next time we get together and we’ll talk about loneliness and how listening well relates to that.
Karen: Okay, that sounds great.
David: Okay, we’ll look forward to it.
Outgo: You’ve been listening to the Before We Go Podcast. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please remember to rate, review, and share on whatever platform you listen. This podcast is copyrighted 2020 by Mainstay Ministries, Post Office Box 30, Wheaton, Illinois 60189.
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