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Listening is more than hearing

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Archives / 1987 / September



Listening is more than hearing

Garth D. Thompson
Garth D. Thompson is professor of pastoral care at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.



There is need of shepherds who, under the direction of the Chief Shepherd, will seek for the lost and straying. This means the bearing of physical discomfort and the sacrifice of ease. It means a tender solicitude for the erring, a divine compassion and forbearance. It means an ear that can listen with sympathy to heartbreaking recitals of wrong, of degradation, of despair and misery." 1

This description of evangelism captivates my imagination. Is there a more moving representation of evangelism than "seeking the lost"? We are privileged to join the Lord in His mission "to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10).

To most Seventh-day Adventist ministers "evangelism," or "seeking the lost," implies three things: drawing attention by advertising, proclaiming the gospel, and calling for decisions. We might not think of "an ear that can listen" as a primary tool of evangelism.

Is an ear that can listen different from ears in general? Is there a difference between a listening ear and a hearing ear? While there may not be a wide difference in definition, I have chosen to differentiate between the two for the purposes of this article. The following examples illustrate the contrasts between the two:

A Hearing Ear: A young man approaches his pastor and says, "Pastor, I have been wondering about this passage of Scripture. Some people think it means one thing, some another. What do you think?" The hearing-eared pastor recognizes the question as an invitation to enter into discussion, to inform, to give the official church position, etc. "Well, John," the pastor says, "it means ..." While the pastor's ear hears the question about Scripture and doctrinal position, it hears nothing about John's personal self.

A Listening Ear: If the same young man approaches a listening-eared pastor with the same question, the pastor will listen to what he was disclosing about his internal experience, and may respond: "John, it sounds as if you are troubled about what this passage is saying to you." Simply listening thus to another may afford him an experience that is not only rare but highly enabling. We have noted that Ellen White proposes it to be a central and essential redemptive activity of shepherds who, under the direction of the Chief Shepherd, are seeking the lost and straying.

Active listening

Research has verified the beneficial effects of listening and has helped to define the type of listening that is most therapeutic. Active listening is a primary element of any truly therapeutic intervention. 2 In fact, one entire school of psychotherapy is based on the proposition that when listening is clearly conveyed, attentive, genuinely empathic, and respectful, it is the one intervention that is not merely necessary but entirely sufficient for fostering positive change and growth. 3

While others may not accord to listening the same all-sufficiency, they do hold it to be necessary to all other therapeutic activities. "After all, whatever we do in therapy is accomplished by means of communication. That is what we do with clients. Communication is simply listening to and sending information, listening and responding." 4

But much of what passes for listening is not active. It is really little more than involuntary hearing. Active listening has the following characteristics:

1. It is intentional. In active listening a listener intentionally seeks to experience as accurately and as fully as possible all that another is communicating.

2. It is focused. While a person may talk about many things and people, an active listener focuses on what that person may be disclosing or reporting about his inner self. Whatever persons, events, or situations an individual may be speaking about, an active listener focuses on what it all reflects of that individual's internal experience, what it means to him--to his life situation, his attitude, his emotions, and his behavior.

3. It is interpretive. An active listener attempts to recognize the meaning of a speaker's thinking, feelings, and attitudes about his subject. A listener directs his interpreting to nonverbal as well as verbal output, with the recognition that all interpretation, especially of the non verbal, must be held as strictly tentative. No amount of skill or insight should lead one to presume to certainty of interpretation!

4. It is conveyed. Unless a listener conveys the fact that he is listening, his listening will be of limited value. The primary vehicle for conveying that you are actively listening is to report the product of the listening by making regular perception checks of what you have heard.

How to listen actively

Three considerations may serve to clarify active listening further: people listening versus topic-listening, dialogue versus monologue, and reporting versus questioning.

When a woman is talking about her marriage, we may direct our attention to what she seems to be saying about it: it is terrible, her husband is impossible, etc. When we thus direct our attention to her apparent subject, we are topic-listening.

If, on the other hand, we direct our attention to what she is indicating about her self--about her own frame of mind or emotional state--in her talk about the marriage, then we are people-listening. Thus, for instance, a boarding school student complaining about cafeteria food may really be indicating that he is home sick or discouraged, or that he has just received a Dear John letter though ostensibly the topic is the cafeteria! A people-listener would be sensitive to what the student was saying about his self, while a topic-listener would get caught up in a consideration of the quality of cafeteria food.

The people-listener would convey his attempt at listening by responding: "Wow! It sounds like you are mighty homesick!" The topic listener, on the other hand, might respond: "What's so bad about the food? I enjoyed my dinner in the cafeteria last week." Such a response would put the student on the defensive and leave him feeling misunderstood and distanced from his hearer.

Close, analytical, even critical listening to topic content is not to be put down. It is essential to living. But it is listening to understand the person that best qualifies as active. For the truly listening ear it is not so important to understand that which is upsetting to another as to understand his experience of being upset--how it feels, what it means to his functioning.

Paul Tournier suggests that for most people, interactions with others are seldom much more than "dialogues of the deaf." 5 That is to say that while there may be a form of dialogue, for the most part we don't really tune in to what others are saying. This makes it difficult for the one who is supposed to be the listener to offer much "witness" to the speaker. And talking to someone who is merely "hearing" and not "listening" creates problems for the speaker as well. In fact, it intensifies the isolation and alienation that are among the major factors that keep people from fully functioning personhood.

Dialogue at its best connotes two or more people interacting on a common level, each listening intently to and trying to understand the other, and responding to what he has heard. Neither presumes to instruct the other nor assumes a level of superiority. (This may be difficult for the pastor who has grown accustomed to being placed on a pedestal!)

Dialogue implies a person interacting with a person, responding to self-disclosure rather than to topical content. Thus, the moment a "helpee" is allowed to talk in the third person about someone "out there"--spouse, son, employer--dialogue tends to be diminished. The helper needs to retain intentional focus on the person of the helpee even as he seeks to help her focus on his own disclosure of self. ("Ruth, you said your mother is impossible. It sounds to me as though you feel like giving up.") True dialogue must be kept in the you-I mode, rather than in the you-he (she, they) mode.

Another caution: as soon as one party to attempted dialogue presumes to assume the role of informer, instructor, adviser, admonisher, exhorter--intellectualizing about topical content--true dialogue tends to cease.

Questioning and reporting

Asking questions is commonly seen as a helpful tool for conveying attention and interest, as well as a necessary means for prompting additional information from another. Questions like "How long have you felt this way?" "How do you feel about her?" "What did he really want you to do?" seem--and often may be--indispensable. As a vehicle for manifesting a listening ear, however, they have serious limitations.

Jacques Lalanne states pointedly that "questions have their place. Anyone who has seen a skillful lawyer break down a carefully constructed lie knows the value of effective questions, or cross-questions as weapons." 6 The trouble is that that is precisely the way questions are commonly experienced as--weapons of attack!

From childhood on, most of us have experienced questions as veiled accusations. A cartoon I once saw shows a mother calling down the hall, "Whose filthy, wet, snowy boots were left on the hall floor?" From another room Johnny calls back, "Those are my boots!" Whereupon Mother retorts, "I know those are your boots!" Poking his head around the corner, Johnny asks plaintively, "Then how come you had to ask whose boots they were?" Most of our childhood memories related to questions connect them to interrogations or accusations.

Thus, questions can leave the one being questioned feeling cornered, whether or not the questioner intended it that way. Because we have experienced questions as veiled accusations, most of us have learned to be wary of them and to respond to them with as little information as possible. With that there comes the sense of needing to be distanced from the questioner. That is a long way from describing the relationship a redemptive undershepherd needs to foster!

A much more effective vehicle for fostering a redemptive relationship is what we may refer to as reporting. When empathic listening has prompted within the listener an awareness of the experience of another; when he is so involved that he is actually aware of what is happening inside himself with regard to the other's situation and feelings; when he then reports his perceptions in the tentative form of perception check, then he is affording the other the luxury of feeling understood, even though his perception may not be completely accurate. If, rather than hiding behind questions, he will identify what it is that he has perceived, a much more vital relationship can occur than could possibly occur otherwise.

Thus, as a shepherd "seeking for the lost and straying" hears words about a hope that has failed to materialize; as he observes hunched shoulders and softer than usual voice; as he tunes in to his own sympathetic awareness, he may report the result of his people-listening: "I sense that you are feeling terribly disappointed." This report affords the counselee the feeling that his listener has re ally been trying to be with him. Then, rather than restricting his communication to the least possible, he warms to disclosing yet more that may similarly be listened to and understood.

Reporting and questioning may seem similar on the surface, but there is one key difference: reporting includes a description of the reporter's feelings rather than just a question about the other's feelings. Reporting would rephrase the question "What are you feeling right now?" to "I am wondering [reports what is happening inside me right now] what is going on in your mind right now." The latter is an affirmation, a statement, a disclosing of myself. The former offers none of myself. "What did you mean by that?" can become "I wish you would explain what you meant just then." The latter tends to defuse any sense of attack that might be perceived in a question.

The psalmist testifies to the redemptive experience that really being listened to can afford. "I love the Lord," he said, "because he hath heard my voice and my supplications. Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live" (Ps. 116:1, 2). Our ministry is at its best when it too is "the ministry of the inclined ear."

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1 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald, 1915), p. 184.

2 Janet Moursund, The Process of Counseling and
Therapy (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall,
1985), p. 3.

3 Carl Rogers, Client-centered Therapy (Cambridge,
Mass.: HoughtonMifflin, 1951).

4 Moursund, p. 14.

5 Paul Tournier, The Meaning of Persons (New
York: Harper and Brothers, 1957).

6 Jacques Lalanne, "Attack by Question," Psychology Today,
November 1975, p. 134.

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