Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Shepastor: "Listening 101..."

So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great. Job 2:13, KJV

Pain, suffering, grief, anger, frustration – these are feelings that we all experience at one time or another in life. Some episodes of the above said emotions can be so intense that words fail us. At other times, our words are in abundance, but there is no one to truly listen. Individuals may find themselves wanting to talk about how they feel, how particular experiences impacted them, how the struggle is effecting their lives. But all too often, they are stopped at the proverbial door – a door that could potentially lead to their healing.

When someone is wrestling to make sense of or to process their pain, most often they are not desiring answers from another human, as much as an empathic, listening ear. While “sitting in silence” as Job’s friends did initially can be an appropriate response, depending upon the circumstance, there are also ways to listen and provide opportunities for the one in pain to feel “heard.”

Frequently, people of faith feel the need to give some answer, some scripture, some “prescription” to address the speaker’s problem. Sometimes they will use words that minimize the person’s pain in the face of some facts or even faith., i.e., “Don’t even worry about that – God will take care of it…All things work together for good to them that love God and are called according to His purpose…Well, what can you expect? You know that they don’t know the Lord…I don’t know what more to say, you know that they have a problem, you shouldn’t even let that bother you…”

Although these remarks are meant to bring some measure of comfort and are well intentioned, more often than not, they de-legitimize the person’s pain, calls their trust in God into question and basically tells them to “suck it up!”

One of the most valuable educational experiences I received was during my chaplain residency. There we were taught the critical pastoral care skill of “active listening.” In a nutshell, active listening is a process by which the “listener” shows the speaker that they are listening by repeating what the speaker said in their own words. They also offer empathic (“feeling into”) responses that encourage the speaker to continue to open up.

Some examples of active listening responses are as follows…

- So they said thus and so to you? What was that like? How did that make you feel?
- I can imagine that was very difficult for you. I’m hearing you say…How did you handle that?
- It sounds like you feel very isolated. How would you describe it?
The above examples don’t allow for “yes” and “no” responses. They encourage the speaker to share (if they so desire) from their inner most being their thoughts, feelings and emotions. These kinds of statements also affirm the individual’s right to plop their feelings out on the table, so to speak and look at them. As odd as it may seem, sometimes people don’t even realize the depth of their pain, the intensity of their emotion or even the misguided process of their thoughts until they’ve been given this opportunity to say what they feel in a safe environment.

This process is not meant to enable “pity partying,” but rather to allow the speaker to release pinned up frustration, emotion and toxic ideas through verbalizing their feelings.

The next time the Lord presents you with the opportunity to be with someone who is “processing,” ask yourself some questions before you speak:

- Will these words allow them to open up or shut them down?
- Am I listening actively or am I trying to fix?
- How might I feel if I were in their shoes? What would I want a listener to provide for me in terms of a “space to speak for real?”
- How can I respond in a way that lets them know that I “hear” them?

One of the best gifts that you can give a person in pain and struggle is an “active listening ear.”

Post a comment or send me an email at

Until next Wednesday,
In Faith, Hope and Perseverance,
Pastor Chris

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