Has this every happened to you when you teach preach? You’re in a groove and as you scan your audience, you notice someone not listening…or someone’s arms are crossed…or someone has a scowl on her face. And then an inner dialogue begins. Why aren’t they listening? They must not like what I’m saying? They don’t like me, etc., etc., etc. And then you lose your focus. Every preacher, teacher, and speaker faces this temptation. When it happens, what’s going on and what can we do?
It’s all (or mostly) in our brains. Certainly satan is at work to distract us and our listeners as Mark writes.
Mark 4.15 Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them.
But often it’s simply a conscious/unconscious process going on inside our brains due to an overactive part of the brain whose function is to scan for something not right in our environment. When we notice someone(s) in our audience not listening, instead of just noticing and moving on, our minds often add silent commentary like, They must not like what I’m saying. And then we add more dialogue on top of that and even more on top of that.
It we stay in this thought stream, it actually blocks our ability to communicate effectively. We lose our mental focus, we can lose our place in the talk, and negative emotions like fear (they are rejecting me) or worry (what will they say about me since they have rejected me) further distract us.
When this happens, fortunately, we can take some quick practical steps to get back on track. Here’s what has helped me stop this negative chatter before it affects my sermon or talk.
- Recognize the physical clues that this may be happening. For me, a dry mouth indicates I’m doing this. When our fight-flee-freeze center in our brain is active, it activates a part of our nervous system that among other things, causes our muscles to tighten, get sweaty palms, or slows down our saliva production. Thus for me, my dry mouth. So, it’s important to stay aware of body sensations that indicate your mind is chattering. Sometimes it’s easier to notice these physical sensations first.
- After the physical clue reminds you, simply acknowledge that your brain is messing with you. Those anxious thoughts and emotions are not really you. They are simply passing sensations in your brain. In reality, most of those negative thoughts have no basis in fact. So, let yourself off the hook. It’s your brain messing with you.
- Reappraise the situation. I’m a very attentive listener and I always look straight at those talking to me, whether I’m in a 1-1 conversation or I’m listening to a speaker bring a talk. I assume others do the same. However, some people are auditory learners and even though they seem to not be listening, they often are. So, when I see someone not paying attention to my talk I mentally tell myself, They must be an auditory learner. I may be wrong, but this short mental reappraisal helps me get back on track.
- Finally, pause at a natural break in your talk, take a breath, and move on. Many studies have shown that a slow breath actually lessens anxiety.
When we bring a sermon or a spiritual talk, spiritual forces certainly seek to minimize the Kingdom impact of our teaching. Satan does not want God’s Word to change lives. Yet, at the same time, our bodies and brains often work agains us as well. We must recognize the difference and when it’s our brain, these simple techniques can help.
What has helped you deal with this mental chatter when you speak?