One Incredible Way to Make a Difference

Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.
–Edmund Burke

I’m leading a mission trip this week. I’ve been doing this sort of thing for years. And I love it. It makes me come alive. Why? Because I always learn something new — about myself and the world.

Make a Difference by Listening
Photo credit: Russell C. (Creative Commons)

Mostly, though, it’s the same lesson over and over again. Making a difference is actually possible. And it’s far easier, in fact, than we often think.

How do you change a life? Simple. Here’s the fail-proof formula for starting a revolution.

Move your mouth less and open your ears

That’s how you make a real difference. You listen.

Ask someone’s story. Allow him to share dreams and aspirations. Make a person feel like she matters. And tomorrow, do it again. And again. Until you get addicted.

I learn so much simply by listening. For instance, today I wanted to spend the day visiting the community, preparing for the groups that will be arriving in less than 24 hours. But instead, my travel companion and I spent over an hour talking with the director of the school where we’re staying.

What were we doing? Listening. To story after story. Memory after memory.

This is the only successful way to produce true, lasting change in a life.

You have to listen.

World changers listen

There’s no other way to say it. People who do work that matters stop yapping at some point, and receive information.

How do great political leaders succeed? They listen. They travel the countryside, visiting constituents and hearing their stories. They read letters, answer phone calls, and let people speak their minds.

How do skilled lawyers win a case? They listen to their clients. They pay attention to the evidence. They examine the testimonies of countless witnesses. They do far more than talk.

How do good teachers teach? They listen to their students. They notice how they respond to a question or spend weeks finding something that motivates them. And they use this information to make a difference.

Changing the world is actually possible

Most people scoff at youthful aspirations of changing the world. As if it’s never been done before. (Hint: it has.) Actually, it’s quite possible — even within your reach right now.

All you have to know is how to begin.

I began going on mission trips because I wanted to change the world. But now, I go, because I want to change me.

I agree with Chesterton when he said, “What’s wrong with the world is me.” The world’s problems are not solved through political or social action alone. No amount of lobbying or advocacy can change the human heart.

The world’s brokenness, rather, is healed when you and I take ownership of our own brokenness — and work to fix it.

I am the problem. Therefore, I need help outside of myself to be the solution.

A great place to start is humility — to admit that you need others’ help, that God himself will have to intervene in your life to redeem some of your mistakes.

Real change is unusual. It never happens like we think. Rarely is a life is transformed by something grandiose. It is always small and unassuming. Something quite personal. This is the unexpectedness of change.

Is one enough?

Never worry about numbers.  Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.
–Mother Teresa

At this stage in life, I’m not impressed with numbers. I’m becoming even less enamored with the megaphone means of broadcasting a message. A larger stage doesn’t seem to necessary mean great change in the lives affected.

Far too many of my heroes have been small men, people who have changed the world one tiny act at a time. This is where real transformation happens — in the daily routes, in the disciplines of life that we hardly notice.

I’ve learned that the best stuff in life is simple. It’s a cup of coffee. One-on-one relationships. That’s how you make a difference. One small investment at a time.

And you start by listening.

Is one person’s life forever changed worth your investment of time?

You had better decide before moving forward.

Why listening is hard

We like hearing ourselves talk. We love being the center of attention. Listening does not come easy to many of us. We are selfish, short-sighted, and lazy. We want to be the star of the show.

But listening is important. In a world of me-first superstars and self-seeking success-hounds, doing something as radical as lending your ear can change everything.

But we have to be willing to abstain from self-centeredness and focus on someone else. This is counter-intuitive, but it is  ultimately good and cleansing for the soul.

It turns out that only seeking our own needs is an all-consuming, never-satisfied desire.

Getting started is easy

So how do you do this? How do you begin? Like anything else: put one foot in front of the other.

Go to a nursing home. Volunteer for a nonprofit telethon. Visit a long-lost family member. Open up a friend’s photo album. Sit on a park bench next to a stranger. Travel to a new city.

Go out on a limb. Risk a little. Ask a thoughtful question. Show sincere interest.

And then you must do the hardest, most important part: Listen.

Pay attention. Nod along (without nodding off). Focus. Who knows what could happen from this one little act of obedience. You just might change the world.

Do you find that listening makes a difference? Why or why not? Join the discussion in the comments.

46 thoughts on “One Incredible Way to Make a Difference

  1. A quote I heard once (can’t remember the source, but it’s not mine) is “our job is to listen people into existence”.  I think the same could go for ideas.   Thanks

  2. Lol, when I first read this sentence – “So how do you do this? How do you begin? Like anything else: put one foot in front of the other.” – my mind immediately thought you were going to say put that foot in your mouth and open your ears.

  3. I was a missionary for 12 years of my life, so missions is dear to me.

    I served in the Eastern Europe country of Latvia for about 8 years.

    My favorite moments there were traveling to the different villages and passing out Chick tracts.  Nothing like being out in the middle of nowhere in a small poor village giving them the richest thing in the world, Jesus Christ.

    I still remember the day I encountered road construction while I was headed to a certain village.  The detour took me through another village I had not considered going too.  I went and distributed tracts in the large apartment complex.

    When I got in my car to leave the village, I saw a man come out of his apartment.  He was holding one of the tracts I had just left.  He would take a few steps while reading it and then he would stop.  He would take a few more steps and then stop again.  It was such a refreshing site to see a tract being read with so much interest, unlike the usual response I get here in the States. (Americans still need gospel tracts though.)

    It still amazes me that God gave me a detour so that I could get the Gospel to that man.  God knows what He is doing, He just wants us to go and He will direct our steps.

    I think everyone should go on a foreign  missions trip at least once in their life.  They will quickly see that America is not the only group God cares about.

  4. I agree with you Jeff. We view world change as coming through legislation or new elections. It really happens through positive change in an individual. If we help one person, then they can help one person, and so on. If we can help two people, then each person can help two and the good changes grow rapidly. I think the key is finding value in every single person. This is really hard for me because I tend to be so focused on myself.

  5. Great, great, GREAT advice, Jeff.  I tend to be a big-picture type of person, so I need reminders like this, reminders that change begins with us and change begins in small ways.  Our world is starved for listening ears, and it’s such a simple thing to do.  I’m going to try to live more intentionally now, putting this into practice.  Hope your mission trip is incredible!

  6. Do not speak unless you can improve upon the silence. (Zen saying … or Chinese proverb … something like that)

    Trouble is, when two such enlightened and avid listeners meet, then there’s nothing to listen to, because nobody talks.

  7. I would never have made a difference when I worked as a social worker if I hadn’t listened.  Until we take the time and value another’s perspective and experience, nothing of importance will occur.

  8. What an awesome revelation – that “this one little act of obedience” to the New Commandment to “love one another as I have loved you” is to… LISTEN….

  9. Great Post!! 
    I love this line,  “The world’s brokenness, rather, is healed when you and I take ownership of our own brokenness — and work to fix it”.  I volunteered cleaning out a flood damaged home this week and left physically exhausted, however I have been filled with energy because of that day.  It is something I need to get back to doing more of.  As well as listening.

  10. Great post Jeff! When I was getting ready to go on my first mission trip a couple of years ago, I thought that I was doing something that would change someone else’s life. The funny thing was that when I started to listen to the people we were working with, I learned so much more from them than I could have ever taught them. I’m learning to make a conscious effort to listen more than I talk. It’s the only way I’m going to learn.

  11. “I began going on mission trips because I wanted to change the world. But now, I go, because I want to change me.” LOVE THAT!
    I’ve learned listening is important based on my own experience. I’ve learned that there is a difference in listening and truly being heard. Many people listen, but few hear. It’s made me take a step back and pay attention to whether I’m listening or really hearing people the way I want to be heard. 

  12. “We like hearing ourselves talk. We love being the center of
    attention.” Your words resonate with me, Jeff. I am a teacher and I am used to
    being front and center and in control of my classroom. Teachers should be the
    best listeners…unfortunately, sometimes we are the worst. Your post today is a
    thoughtful reminder to pay close attention to my listening skills. I thank you
    and so do my students. 🙂 Blessings to you on this mission trip!

  13. Thank you, Jeff. Your simple and encouraging words take me back to simple truths. We are given relationships and missions for the purpose of transformation, the transformation of the other or the system, but more significantly, the transformation of ourselves. You might enjoy reading some of my thoughts about this subject at This is on my blog,  Blessings on your trip.

  14. I love that Mother Theresa quote. Listening is a lost and rare art…glad you’re bringing attention back on it, Jeff.

  15. As always I love this post. Being a therapist I’m trained to “listen” to people, figure out what they’re really trying to say, and then piece the puzzle together. But the biggest struggle for me is listening to myself, not just the words I say casually in conversation but what my soul is trying to say. I think sometimes it’s scary to truly listen to what the world is trying to say to us because we know it’s the truth.

  16. A.) You used the word revolution. I applaud you for that.
    B.) I’m leading a mission trip as I type this from Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
    C.) Tonight’s small group topic was on the importance of listening to the passions of others.
    D.) Good post as always.

  17. The principle applies in our prayer life too. We all too often spend more time talking than listening. The doing takes on a different direction and meaning after we listen. We wind up truly working for Him and not self-satisfaction. Be blessed, Jeff. Prayin’ for you.

  18. Jeff, I’m a college friend of Phil Cooke’s.  We went to ORU together when it was all about TV shows and millions watching.  The shows had an effect on people, sure, but I learned the truths you share here and chose a different path, becoming a counselor.

    People actually pay me to listen!  They can’t find anyone else who will!

    Then something great happens:   While I listen, somewhere deep in the recesses of the neurological hard drive, a story or truth emerges that perfectly answers their question or describes the right step for them to take.  They are willing to listen to what insight I may have gained through listening to thousands of others.  In what Rev. John Wesley calls “an hour of close conversation,” their spirit receives hope.  They step forward to change their lives.

    It all starts with listening…

    1. Nice, Mark. Love these thoughts. I’m a fan of Phil. He’s got some great stuff to say about technology, attention, and how communication can still change the world.

  19. Love it!  You’re an inspiration, Jeff.  Have fun and my the Lord bless all your worthy endeavors!

  20. Love this. Listening is an art we all need to become much better at. I also believe in spreading the message of impacting people right where they are. Thanks for the great post!

  21. Thank you! Your words helped me and make see things from a different perspective 🙂
    Thank you again

  22. This resonates with a great many of my innermost thoughts lately – how self-gratification after self-gratification is a never ending, wild goose chase and how lending a hand or even an ear, is what takes you forward on the only path that really matters. Thank you.

Comments are closed.