WHEN I started my ministry about eleven years ago I was not a very good listener. This led to misunderstanding on my part of other people's problems, since I was not really tuned in to them, I was more interested in handing out advice and telling people what to do and how to do it. I tended to he judgmental in my approach instead of trying to get the counselee to gain insight into his own problem and eventually on his own initiative to see the several possible alternatives and hopefully choose a course of action for himself.
Fortunately, I caught myself early and have been able through a strenuous process of self-discipline and introspection to develop a better capacity to really listen to others. I am no longer afraid of long pauses or of those lulls that come every so often during the course of a conversation which in the past used to make me a little fidgety and self-conscious.
Truly, it is a difficult task to be a good listener. It is much easier to hand out ad vice; tell people exactly what to do. Listening is an art, one of the finest, and it can be developed if one is truly interested in persons and is willing to severely discipline himself. And it cannot be emphasized too much that it comes through discipline and constant practice. It is not a gift or an innate trait that some have and others don't.
Much can be learned in the field of counseling, particularly the area of creative listening, by going to the field of education and considering the two philosophies of learning. According to one, the teacher is the authority. His task is to communicate his wisdom to his less in formed and less mature class members. The role of the class member is simply to listen carefully to the teacher and to participate only in ways and at times specified by the teacher. According to the other philosophy, the teacher is a colearner with the other members of his group. He does not carry full responsibility for the success or failure of his group. Each member, as an important person in the learning groups, is expected to become meaningfully involved through responsible participation. Although the teacher deals generally with groups, and not with individuals, there are certain basic principles that apply in the area of counseling with individual persons. We may assume that just as the philosophy that sees the teacher as colearner with others in the group, and not as an authoritarian figure, is the most meaningful and most productive of good results; like wise, the counselor who sees himself as, let us say, a participant-observer rather than as a font of all wisdom, would see more genuine progress in the lives of those troubled persons who come to him for help than the one who poses as an oracle.
By listening intently, the counselor helps to create a wholesome climate for the gaining of insights on the part of the person in front of him. He helps the counselee to clarify his own thinking. He is able to empathize more effectively with the counselee when he listens creatively. Here we should point out that good listening is never a subjective experience in which one meditates on what he will say when a convenient break or pause comes in the discussion. It is rather an experience in which the counselor seeks genuinely and actively to understand both the meaning and the spirit of what the counselee is saying. It is true that words are the medium through which meanings are communicated, but is it not equally true that sometimes we must search behind the actual words we are hearing to discover the ideas the speaker is seeking to communicate? Woe unto the counselor who misses the important clues that so often are given by persons in distress!
These clues are not given only through the medium of the spoken word. There is also the area of NVC—nonverbal communications. What are nonverbal communications? I can think of no better definition than that given by Milton Miles Berger, who says that NVC are—all those manifest and latent messages, other than verbal, which reach ourselves and others about ourselves and others and the time-space continuum of the world we live in. These messages may be perceived through any of our bodily senses such as seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and as extrasensory and other ways still unknown but in process.*
In His Shoes
So, then, our listening is not vacuous by any means. It is more than just a "technique." We listen not only for the objective discussion but also for the very sake and being of the other person. We listen whole-heartedly, and that means that we listen with the strictest attention to another, with out judgment or criticism or superiority, but with love. We listen with an open heart and mind and endeavor sincerely to under stand the world from the point of view of the other. To put it colloquially, we put ourselves in the other person's shoes.
The words we hear are more than mere sound waves. They are conveyors of thoughts and feelings. Those who are in tune with the other person will not only hear but feel his grief, his loneliness, his despair, his hurt, his doubts. When the counselor listens in this manner, a person may reveal secrets that have been a source of anxiety and a lonely burden for years. He will let his guard down, as it were; he will cease taking a defensive and suspicious stance, for he knows that he is at one with his hearer and that there is no need to keep up pretenses. He will speak forthrightly and honestly because he assuredly knows that he will be understood and accepted. In a deeply spiritual sense he and the counselor are "members one of another," for the counselor listens with the heart.
In this type of relationship there is deep commitment of one person to another. There is a loving fellowship which engenders mutual confidence and trust. And this is the ideal setting and atmosphere for real communication; one in which individuals gain personal insight and find power to effect personal change.
It is estimated that 87 percent of city dwellers acknowledge struggles with personal and family problems and that out of these, 42 per cent turn first to the pastor and the church. I am the pastor of a church in the inner city, and I think that statement is quite true. What a great responsibility! It causes me to look to God and pray:
"Lord, I realize that one of the ways in which we fully love a person is to listen with concern, with feeling, with understanding, and with acceptance; that a deeper relationship between persons can exist through the art of real listening. Help me, by listening, to establish a creative relationship between myself and those who come to me for help. Lord, make me a listener. And whenever I speak, may others know that I have been truly listening to them, with deep feeling, sympathy, and love. Above all, may I communicate to others Thy great love. O Thou Great Listener, who heareth every heartfelt prayer, make me a channel of Thy peace. May others, through me, come to know Thee, whom to know is life eternal. Amen."
* "Nonverbal Communications in Group Psychotherapy," in Group Psychotherapy and Group Function. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1963, pp. 424, 425.