• Patrick Norris

16. Emotional Listening



So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; JAMES 1:19 NKJV

How do you listen? What does it mean to you to “listen?” As a leader, when staff comes to you with conflict issues, what do you hear? As a husband/wife, when your spouse comes to you with frustration energy, what do you hear? When a child is in distress, what data are you absorbing?


Your relationships, and therefore your leadership,

will only be as successful as your capacity to listen.


Your relationships, and therefore your leadership, will only be as successful as your capacity to listen. And many people listen only for specific things, collect only the specific data of another person’s frustrations. However, by only listening cognitively, to the logic, or lack of logic, will give a very small percentage of what is really being presented. This preoccupation with cognitive communication is always going to net out growing separation, irritation, and frustration… ultimately on all parties involved.


How many times have we heard a team member frustrated because they can’t seem to be heard? How many times have we heard a spouse say, “I speak up and speak up, but no one listens”? The leader will turn to the logical and think, “I heard everything you said. I just either don’t know what to do with what you said, or I don’t agree with what you said.” However, when we do this as leaders, we are dismissing the emotional drivers that are underneath the logical data.


The Economist (LINK here!) surveyed over 4,000 professionals and found a “sharp divergence emerged between skills that the C-Suite executives think they need and those that their employees want them to prioritize.” C-level executives felt that technology and finance were the two areas where they needed to increase their skills. However, the lower ranking staff reported that their bosses need to increase their emotional intelligence and leadership chops.


I find it interesting that team members equate leadership strength, or being a great leader, is about how the leader makes them feel as a contributing part of the team.


I find it interesting that team members equate leadership strength, or being a great leader, is about how the leader makes them feel as a contributing part of the team. What is clearly ironic is that these C-Level leaders would not be in the flow charts as leaders if they hadn’t proven tremendous skills to lead. So, what is the confusion between the two about?


What team members, spouses and our children want from us is “emotional intelligence.” Or to be more specific, what they want is to be seen, known and searched within their own transference of communication data. The words we use often are incapable of carrying the deeper emotional happenings that the communicator is dealing with. There can be a powder keg of energy behind simple words.


Let’s take a step back and think about our childhood. When traumatic, distressing events took place within our family of origin – when we are injured in our attachment to Mom or Dad – our brains moved to fragmentation. In the intensity of the moment, due partly to the lack of the development of segments of our brains, our brains processed the moment for survival first, and then how to strategize for even an illusion of belonging. Fragmentation means our brains were incapable of assessing the motives and intentions of our offenders. Our memories can be accessed with various details of the hurt. However, it is rare that someone is able to appropriately see “why” the offender did what they did.


When we dissociate data from the deeper emotional drivers, we lose most of our connection with them.


What I am describing is the dissociation of facts from the deeper reality. We are trained to repress emotions and shut down the mind-mapping of the other person’s intentions. This in turn trains our brains to only listen to data. We tend to only “see” the other person’s ideas as concepts. We tend to only focus on the other person’s competence to articulate a position, a reasoning, or to sell and idea. When we dissociate data from the deeper emotional drivers, we lose most of our connection with them. And of course, people feel like they spewed words but were not “listened to.”


Emotional listening is when we are equally, if not more, concerned about a person’s emotions than the cognitive data they present.


An example is:


Bob is an accomplished and highly gifted musician and worship team member. He feels he doesn’t have the liberty to worship, sing, and explore musically with the innovations he desires. He feels he gets bored while playing the same old songs… songs he could play in his sleep. His frustration is partly accredited in his mind to the Worship Leader’s structure, required practice, and hitting a timeline. Follow the typical cognitive-based listening between Bob and Pastor Jack.


Bob: Pastor, I don’t feel I have the liberty to play and sing and explore innovatively. I’m really, really frustrated.


Pastor Jack: Tell me more. Can you tell me what you mean when you say you don’t have liberty?


Bob: There is no room for me to do fun things instrumentally. I think there are so many cool and effective musical things we could be doing. The structure of playing the piano exactly like the sample-recordings lacks creativity and is mind-numbing to me.


Pastor Jack: I know Joe (the Worship Leader) likes the baseline to be faithfulness to preparation. When you prepare like the other team members you set a tone within our culture that honors the rest of the team. Are you preparing each week?


Bob: No. I know I need to do better. However, I can do those songs without any preparation.


Pastor Jack: Do you see value in the team culture for you to prepare for worship sets like everyone else? Do you see yourself as an influencer and leader yourself? Do you think there is currency is modeling preparation practices?


Bob: Well, sure. But I just want to do some things innovatively. I want to do creative things.


Pastor Jack: Again, can you see that Joe (Worship Leader) is wanting to set a baseline of cultural excellence first, then give permission and empowerment to create from that baseline


Bob: Yes.


In this scenario Pastor Jack takes on the role of “fixer.” He is interested in mitigating the problem with truth and clarity. However, Bob walks away frustrated.


Bob feels he used his best language to share his desires. To Bob, his request seems simple, and feels it is stupid that he must ask for it. He feels it should be obvious that everyone would experience a greater worship set if musicians were able to do what they are gifted for.


Pastor Jack walks away knowing that Bob isn’t satisfied. So, Pastor Jack goes home. Over dinner his wife asks how the meeting with Bob went. Pastor Jack gives her the dialogue of the meeting. He defends his positions, based on the logic in his mind, and replays multiple reasons for his position. In his mind, Bob is confused and being difficult, and no matter what is offered Bob, he is still going to be frustrated. Pastor Jack makes up his mind that there is nothing more I can offer.


The end of this story is that neither Bob nor Pastor Jack feel seen, known, searched, or validated. Why? I believe it is because listening was limited to the transfer of cognitive information. The Pastor was not trained to listen for emotions, or to look at distress in the face, or to read non-verbal signaling. Pastor Jack was never trained to explore these ideas in Bob over months and years of being together. Pastor Jack has never done his own Story-Work, therefore is unaware when emotions show up in staff, or what the emotions mean to Bob when he shares his needs.


When a person is skilled in knowing the emotional evolution of their own story, they become much more attuned to the greater stories of those they lead.


When a person is skilled in knowing the emotional evolution of their own story, they become much more attuned to the greater stories of those they lead. A whole plethora of insights could be explored by noting the voice tones, the intensity of energy, examining the posture, and the angst in the soul. These insights would then be associated to the broader life story of Bob, how his childhood formed in him deep seated emotional beliefs, that how he desires that his present authority - Pastor Jack – will satisfy it for him. These insights would form into themes throughout Bob’s life, to help identify patterns of relational behavior and attaching.


What if this scenario could have played out differently? What if Pastor Jack had of listened with emotional ears, scanning for all markers of emotion? What if Pastor Jack had of previously picked up on the nuances of Bob’s family of origin story, and was able to explore with Bob what he was feeling here?


Emotions tell a deep story. Once explored, a new story begins to emerge.


Emotions tell a deep story. Once explored, a new story begins to emerge. One of the symptoms the Pastor had noticed of Bob over the months and years is that Bob often presents a passive-aggressive behavior. Passive-aggression is when a person is aggressive indirectly, rather than directly. Common symptoms are making excuses, blaming others, playing the victim, sarcasm, and feigning compliance with requests. The Pastor has seen all of these in Bob. An opportunity to explore the patterns, rather than demonize Bob for expressing them as he does, can create intense trust moving forward.


If Pastor Jack had of been trained in Story, through searching out his own Story-Work, he would have picked up on the psychological root systems that brought us to this moment.


You see, Bob’s childhood story of attachment is one where he often felt unseen, unheard, invisible. Both his Mom and Dad, from birth were unattuned to Bob. The only thing that he was celebrated for was his music. He often felt powerless growing up. His parent’s style of parenting taught Bob to not be seen, or to show up, or to self-advocate for his needs. This has set Bob up to survive by passive-aggression. Now as an adult, when Bob feels unseen or invisible, he defaults to patterns of blaming others for his emotional distress and powerlessness.


When Bob feels that he wants something, he tends to feel powerless to get what he desires. Bob’s brain had evolved to believe he only has power when he engages tactics requiring others to give him power. These tactics are his playbook of passive-aggressive schemes. He does them to get what he wants, but often doesn’t get what he wants, so he feels the recurring pain that he is unseen, unheard, unknown, and invisible. He wants Pastor Jack to make him feel what his own family forged his brain to not feel.


What if this scenario unfolded with emotional listening? We begin with the exact same dialogue as before. But this time we expand beyond the cognitive and move to the emotional. While this dialogue below is romantic and perfect, I think you will get the jest of what emotional listening is shooting for.


Bob: Pastor, I don’t feel I have the liberty to play and sing and explore innovatively. I’m frustrated.


Pastor Jack: Tell me more. Can you tell me what you mean when you say you don’t have liberty?


Bob: There is no room for me to do fun things instrumentally. I think there are so many cool and effective musical things we could be doing. The structure of playing the piano exactly like the sample-recordings lacks creativity and is mind-numbing to me. And I don’t feel that Joe (Worship Leader) and you are listening to my desires.


Pastor Jack: Bob. Thank you for inviting me into your heart and soul, for being vulnerable to let me know what you are experiencing. I am so sorry that you feel that way. I know what it is like to be frustrated and feel unheard. I don’t like that feeling when it happens to me. Tell me more of what it feels like when you feel unheard by us.


Bob: Well. I feel like I have so much more to offer. I present ideas and they aren’t acknowledged. I become frustrated.


Pastor Jack: Describe the emotions involved and what it feels like for you to be frustrated.


Bob: I begin to experience being perturbed, then bewildered, then confused, then powerless, and finally either angry or shut down.


Pastor Jack: I can only imagine how that makes you feel. Again, thanks for letting me know your progression. I invite you to be more open to dialogue as you attune to the emotional experiencing in the moments they are happening. I’d love to co-regulate with you in those moments, even if I’m the one triggering the experience for you. Would you be willing to do that?


Bob: I think so.


Pastor Jack: Bob, can we talk a little more about this? I’m bidding for a deeper connection with you. I am very interested in you as a person.


Bob: Sure.


Pastor Jack: Let’s explore what it means to you to feel powerless. Did you ever feel powerless in your childhood? Did you ever feel unknown, invalidated, or unheard? What was that like for you?


Bob: Absolutely. My Mom was so preoccupied. My Dad was so career oriented that he never really checked in on us. When I wanted something, I had to amp myself up to be seen for it.


Pastor Jack: How did you cope with that reality? What was your way of self-soothing? And how did you get your parent’s attention when you were feeling completely unseen?


Bob: Gosh. I’ll have to think about that for a minute. I self-soothed by playing music and singing. I also seemed to get their attention when my goals, or accomplishments, were around music. None of the rest of my life was enough to capture their attention though.


Pastor Jack: Bob, that had to be hard for you. I’m so sorry that you experienced your childhood that way. I know what it is like to not be seen. I feel for you and what that meant to you. I hate what you had to endure. (Jack pauses for a minute just to be present).


Bob: Thanks Pastor.


Pastor Jack: Do feel unseen, unheard, unknown, and powerless in other relationships? Maybe with your wife, kids, or your professional spaces?


Bob: Actually, I do struggle with that.


Pastor Jack: I like to separate organizational standards, policies, and directives from the emotional experiencing of those standards, policies, and directives. Obviously, you would agree that there must be standards that everyone keeps, so a desired culture can continue to grow. However, your emotional experiencing is valid too. Both are important. Would you be open to Story Work, where you explore how your brain experiences present relationships through the lens of past relationship negligence or injuries?


Bob: I think so.


Pastor Jack: I think you will be surprised at how your attachment patterns, the way your brain evolved over your lifetime, will bring clarity to present day relationship commonalities and themes. When we do Story-Work we tend to learn that our feelings towards abandonment, rejection, being unseen, and so much more are coded into our brains from our past. The good news is that we can reprogram those neuropathways to feel seen, loved, and secure.


Bob: That sounds interesting.


Pastor Jack: For clarity. I’m not deflecting your emotional frustration with Joe (Worship Leader) or me. I just want you to know you matter to us. We validate that you feel the way you do. We hold that with honor and a sense of sacredness because it is your story. We also have obligations to the team, the church, and our staff. I invite you to be curious with us on all those fronts. How does that sound?


Bob: I think that is fair.


Pastor Jack: Back to the standards now. I know Joe (the Worship Leader) likes the worship practice baseline to be faithfulness in preparation. When you prepare like the other team members you set a tone within our culture that honors the rest of the team. Will you be willing to prepare the worship sets each week as a leader, influencer, and carrier of the culture? We need you in that role.


Bob: Yes. I know I need to do better.


Pastor Jack: I think you will be surprised at how open Joe will be to your innovations and musical creativity once the baseline of preparation has been proven out.


Bob: I hope that is true.


Pastor Jack: You are so valuable to our team. You are also valuable to me as a human. I’m excited about your Story-Work and what it will do in all areas of your relational networks.


Bob: Thanks Pastor. Thanks for hearing my heart.


In this scenario, you notice that both parties feel seen and heard. Hearing wasn’t cognitive, but emotional. There is merit to both. However, in our fragmentation we often don’t listen to the heart as we are in protection of our heads.


This month, lean into your own Story-Work. Listen from the heart. Learn how emotions are driving the cognitions of so many people you lead.



PASTOR’S AND SPOUSES STORY WORK ZOOM GROUPS


I want to invite you to an exclusive opportunity for senior pastors/spouses & senior leaders of parachurch ministries to engage Story-Work: Leadership Insights by Engaging Story. Story-Work Zoom Groups are designed to help you discover the deeper roots that have formed your emotional identity and drivers. Driven leaders ought to know what they are driven by. Join 6-10 other pastors/spouses for a 6-week journey of discovery and health. Check it out at here!



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