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Quick to Listen

January 26, 2022

It doesn’t matter whether the “talking piece” is a tennis ball, a stone, a stuffed animal, or some other object you can hold in your hand and pass along to another person. What’s important is the role this piece can play in a listening circle as churches have healthy conversations, said Sean Baker, a ministry consultant for Pastor Church Resources (PCR).

In a video that accompanies a new PCR resource, Quick to Listen: An Initiative for Better Discussions in Our Churches, Baker explains how to use a talking piece while having complicated discussions in council meetings, Bible studies, small groups, and other conversational settings in which everyone can participate.

“A talking piece can be a powerful tool,” said Baker. “As you pass the talking piece from person to person, a person is invited to speak, and everyone else is invited to listen.”

In this process each person present is given an opportunity to speak what is on their mind and in their heart about a topic. No one is left out.

“The voices that tend to be silent are helpfully raised up, and those who tend to dominate meetings are appropriately right-sized,” he said.

The new Quick to Listen webpage says, “What the talking piecerepresents is both remarkable and simple. What’s simple about a talking piece is its premise: Whoever holds the talking piece is invited to speak. Whoever does not have the talking piece is invited to listen. What’s remarkable about the talking piece is that it reliably reduces anxiety, invites participation, and increases trust among the people who use it.”

Georgetown (Ont.) CRC became familiar with this process a few months after Kasey Vander Veen arrived in 2020 to serve as a specialized transitional minister (STM). STMs like Vander Veen regularly employ tools like listening circles to enrich congregational discernment and decision-making.

He had learned about the Challenging Conversations Toolkit facilitator training, which also relies on listening circles, and realized he could adapt the training for his context.

“After a few months at the church, I signed up to do the Challenging Conversations training with an online group and afterward shared the experience with my council. I suggested they have members trained to help Georgetown CRC deal with whatever issue may threaten the unity of the congregation,” said Vander Veen.

“The main point,” he added, was “that listening to each other in a structured manner would enable the congregation to hear what the body was truly thinking and feeling without passing judgment or being afraid that a challenging conversation might derail the unity of the body. The truth is that engaging the conversation in a healthy and safe manner allows much more unity and grace.”

After the council agreed to try the process, they enlisted other church members to go through training as well so that they could facilitate listening circles. Nearly 20 people in the church agreed to participate in the PCR-supported training.

“This was something new to us on the council,” said Augie Aswan, the current chair of council. “The pastor explained what it was all about and that it was useful to help people talk about something sensitive, about a potentially explosive issue.”

People tend to talk and not listen too much – especially if they have strong opinions, he added. “We learned that this process helped us develop more empathy when we didn’t see eye to eye.”

As he went through the training and participated in talking circles, said Aswan, “What struck me was that it is a lot harder to listen and not comment. You reserve your comments until everyone has had a chance to talk without interruption.”

One of the first listening circles Georgetown held had to do with whether they would be willing to consider calling a female pastor to serve their church.

“We had the chance for everyone to express their viewpoint without fear and judgment,” said Aswan.

After all of the talking and listening, the church decided to consider female candidates in their upcoming pastor search.

Baker said the efforts of Georgetown CRC offer an example of how this process can help a church discuss and come to a decision about a difficult issue.

“Georgetown CRC has taken some tested tools, listening circles, to help them navigate challenging conversations in ways that seem to be increasing trust and reducing anxiety while also bringing clarity to their leadership,” said Baker.

Churches, he added, can sometimes be so focused on just getting the right answer that they don't think about how they'll discern the right answer.

“If your church is trying to make a difficult or complex decision, adding something as simple as a listening circle to the deliberations can help settle nerves, clarify issues, and build trust among the decision-makers,” he said.

On the new webpage, PCR offers the following tips on how to form and run a listening circle:

“Step One: Pick the moment. As leader of a group, select one part of the meeting where you would hope for wide participation or where you expect some anxiety.

“Step Two: Select a talking piece. Some choose an object merely because it is nearby. Others select an object with some symbolic meaning: a stone representing our strong foundation in Christ or a wood-carved shepherd representing the Good Shepherd present with us.

“Step Three: Prepare the question(s) . . . [which] will guide everyone’s response, so it [they] should be well-considered. . . .

“Step Four: Explain the rules:

  1. Only the person with the talking piece may speak.
  2. No interruptions or commentary from the group.
  3. You may decline to speak by saying “pass” when the talking pieceis handed to you.
  4. The talking piece will be passed around the circle once, and everyone will have one opportunity to respond to the question(s).

“Step Five: Listen”

Vander Veen added, “Passing a talking piece during the pandemic is not too popular, so people come up with different ideas such as holding a pen in your hand while you are speaking and placing the pen on the floor in front of you when you are not speaking.”