The Art of Conversation in Poverty Alleviation

Adapted from The Chalmers Center’s Work Life curriculum.

Hearing from all the community stakeholders we’re trying to serve alongside is critical to the sustainability and effectiveness of any long-term efforts toward poverty alleviation and community development. If we take our call to listen seriously, we should make efforts to listen well—a skill most of us might think we’re better at than we are!

Skills for Smart Listening
Listening is different from simply hearing. We can all think of times when we heard someone tell us something, but because we weren’t listening, we didn’t really process what the speaker was saying in such a way that we were able to respond well or act on it. 

We can think of the goal of listening as this: to fully understand the other person’s point of view without interrupting, rushing, or showing judgment or discouragement.

To achieve that goal, especially when we are engaging in conversation with someone from a different cultural or socioeconomic background, it can be helpful to think through the acronym EARSEncourage, Affirm, Respect, and Summarize.

  • Encourage the speaker to share openly. Set your own concerns aside temporarily and focus on his needs. During a pause, use phrases like: “please continue,” “would you like to say more?,” or “I’m listening.”
  • Affirm the speaker’s realities, thoughts, and feelings. Imagine yourself in his shoes. Enter into his experience. Make head nods when the speaker is talking. Offer 1-2 word affirmations such as “ouch,” “yes,” “frustrating,” “right,” “sure,” etc.
  • Respect the speaker with your body language. Adjust your posture and facial expressions to invite him to express themselves fully. Set aside any activities that could be distracting (cell phone, distracting movements, etc.) and make efforts to maintain eye contact with the speaker.
  • Summarize what the speaker has said and ask open questions. Condense your response to affirm his message. Use phrases like: “let me make sure I’ve understood you correctly…,” or “what I understood you to say was…” as you try to tell back what he’s said in ways he would recognize and agree with. Ask gentle, open questions to make sure you understand his point fully.

Skills for Smart Speaking
Of course, conversation is a two-way street (at least!). Once we have listened well, and it is time for us to respond, the ways we speak can either build on good listening or undermine our listening. If we want to keep relationships flourishing and keep conversation going, we should dedicate just as much effort to how we speak as to how we listen. The following five steps can help guide our conversation when it is our turn to speak. These are especially important in a conversation about difficult topics or situations that have the potential to bring tension into a relationship.

  • “I Saw/Heard”
    The first step in smart speaking is to simply state the raw facts of what you saw or heard that made you want to engage in this conversation. This lets the person with whom you are speaking know your view of the facts, and is the best way to help her understand you in return. We have to summarize well, and be concrete. What did you see? What did you hear? Be careful to state facts, not interpretations.

    Incorrect example: “I saw you get very upset.”
    (This is an interpretation, not a fact).
    Correct example: “I heard the door slam and saw you sit down quickly and cross your arms.”
  • “I Thought”
    The second step is to describe what you assumed or thought based on the facts. For instance, consider the statement: “I heard the door slam and saw you sit down quickly and cross your arms.” Based on any number of factors, we might think the person with whom we’re speaking was unhappy to see us or that she is preoccupied by something outside of our conversation or that she wasn’t particularly upset at all but that these movements are part of her normal mannerisms. By stating first the raw facts of what we saw or heard and then explaining what we thought or assumed based on those facts, we can help her understand our perspective without causing unnecessary offense. What did you think happened in the situation the other person described?

    Examples: “I thought I must have said something to make you upset”
    or “I thought there might have been something you were worried about.”
  • “I Felt”
    The third step is to explain how what you thought about what you saw or heard made you feel. Use “I felt…” statements to unpack your emotions. This is vital to helping the other person understand your perspective. How did you feel? What emotions rose in you during this conversation?

    Incorrect example: “I felt like you were being unhelpful.” (This is an assumption and interpretation.)
    Correct example: “I felt embarrassed because I thought you didn’t respond well to my suggestions” or “I felt worried for you.”

  • “I Wanted”
    The fourth step is to explain what you wanted in the past or want going forward in the discussion for yourself and the person with whom you are speaking. What were your hopes or desires for her? What were your desires for yourself? What are your needs or hopes for the ministry program you’re a part of?

    Examples: “I wanted to follow up with you because I haven’t seen you for the past two weeks” or “I wanted to be able to find out how best to help with your situation.”
  • “I Did” or “I Will”
    The fifth step is to state what we did in the past or will do going forward because of the conversation. What did you do in response to what was shared with you? What do you plan to do with the story you’ve heard or the information you’ve received?

    Examples: “I sat quietly because I didn’t want to interrupt you” or “I asked a friend if he knew what you meant by that” or “I will talk to my organizational director about that.”

These steps for good listening and careful speaking are not exhaustive, but they can go a long way toward helping us engage in real, productive, and ongoing conversations that deepen relationships and facilitate long-term ministry that leads to mutual transformation for both our churches and ministries and the communities, individuals, and families we serve.

The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center helps God’s people rethink poverty and respond with practical biblical principles so that all are restored to flourishing.

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