The art of listening

When we listen to those who speak to us, what do we communicate to them? What do we communicate to them when we don't?

Daniel Schramm, DMin, serves as a chaplain at Memorial Herman Hospital, Houston, Texas, United States.

The art of listening can be a challenge for pastors who are often occupied (or even preoccupied) with sermons, board meetings, their own pain, and a host of other issues. Nevertheless, church members must feel confident that their clergy will listen to them, especially in times of need.

Skilled pastors not only listen, but they listen actively. Active listening involves empathy—the ability to set aside personal thoughts, feelings, and agendas in order to enter into another person’s world. Such listening enables one to see other people’s concerns from their perspectives. Pastors with strong personalities or those whose main focus is on something else, find this especially difficult. Compassionate, active listening can be foreign to pastors, too, because they sometimes have not often themselves been recipients of good listening. To be a good pastor and minister to the flock, one needs to learn how to listen and listen actively.

Trained to listen

One difficulty with active listening is that this topic has not gained prominence in theological education. Pastors enroll in extensive education in order to exegete and preach; listening skills are, it seems, just assumed. Because few people naturally know how to preach, pastors are required to take homiletics. Clergy are also required to take biblical and theological courses to develop exegetical skills. Yet how many are taught the art of listening?

Listening, a complex skill, seldom comes naturally. For example, Jesus spoke of His crucifixion many times, but His disciples did not seem to be very good listeners for they missed the point. Contemporary pastors may feel they are good listeners, but are likely limited in their listening skills unless they have intentionally cultivated them.

Anne Long wrote a book entitled, Listening,1 that can help pastors listen to others, to themselves, and even to God. Books on listening usually encourage people to set aside personal bias, agendas, busyness, natural inclinations to speak, and to listen more than seems natural.

Listening requires discipline and education. A book such as Basic Attending Skills2 would be a good source to help pastors improve their listening skills. Some of the basics of listening include honest eye contact, attentive body language, appropriate vocal style, and a relaxed attitude.

A barrier to effective listening is that it is not typically rewarded, as are activities such as baptisms, fundraising, and good sermons. Also, pastors, being knowledgeable, are tempted to speak more than to listen. Pastoral insecurity and the need to appear competent or in control can be another barrier to effective listening. Pastors may also fear their own pain or the pain of others, and, therefore, be uncomfortable with “merely” listening.

Caring hearts, not talking heads

When pastors are in situations where they do not know how to relate or what to say, they can feel helpless. The sense of helplessness may also lead to superficial speaking that minimizes careful listening. As a hospital chaplain, pastor, and human being, I have especially felt such helplessness when I have watched people die or observed a medical team try to revive someone. During such times, people need a listening, compassionate heart more than a talking, intellectual head that most likely speaks in superficial platitudes or worse.

During one pastorate, I was on a mission to build a new sanctuary. An older member voiced her strong disagreement, arguing that the old facility was just fine. Listening helped me realize that her disagreement was, partially, a desire to share the many memories of baptisms, funerals, and weddings at the old church. I had to set aside my agenda in order to listen to her. This took time, yet as I actively listened to her recount these many memories, her opposition to the new building started to wane.

Listening becomes especially vital when people experience pain. Because we have experienced similar situations, we commonly assume that that we understand them. Typically, people console others by saying, “I know how you feel” or “I understand what you are going through.” Such phrases can leave the other person feeling especially alone and misunderstood. Such statements may even minimize another person’s pain. More appropriate, you might say, “I can not imagine what you are experiencing right now, but I want you to know that I am here for you and am open to listening if you would like to share your experience.”

In one recent case, an elderly lady was devastated when her husband died in a car accident. During the funeral service, a faithful church member tried to console the bereaved woman by saying, “I know how you feel; my son was hit and killed by a car two years ago.” The church member meant to help, but did she express empathy to the older woman or did her own life perspective get in the way? It was the latter, for sure. No situation is ever identical, no matter how similar they may seem. People are all different and may react quite differently to seemingly similar tragedies.

At the same time, suppose this grieving wife came to her pastor? How helpful would it be if the minister replied by discussing the existence of God, the reality of evil, the notion of God’s love, or some other form of apologetics? Not much. The widow did not ask for a systematic theology of human suffering; she needed a caring, listening ear. In such a case, sermonizing becomes inappropriate. In contrast, listening, actively listening, is not only appropriate but crucial. Listening communicates human care, which demonstrates divine care. Listening shows concern by action rather than words.

Listen, listen, listen, listen

As a young pastor I remember being quick to defend God, yet slow to listen to God’s people. Active listening, identified as hard work, requires one’s full focus and takes enormous mental energy. Pastors may have heard and understood the words of someone, but did they really understand what they felt and how these feelings impacted their life? Active listening involves trying to identify a person’s emotions and concerns, but without communicating the idea that we, somehow, know what they are feeling and going through. And that’s because so often we do not understand what they are going through, nor could we ever.

Any ideas that we have about what others are experiencing are only guesses. This realization should help us to clear our minds of preconceptions and allow us to be tentative in how we approach others. Listening includes being careful in what we say and may involve using such words as, “I am not certain what you are experiencing, but I imagine that this is a difficult time for you. Can you help me understand more of what you are going through?” Those we serve in ministry know best what they are feeling; thus, we need to listen to them more than they need to listen to us.

Pastors are in an elevated position to care and listen. No other professional caregiver has such intimate access to people’s personal lives. This unique role of caring must be maximized by active, empathic listening. “Listen, listen, listen, then listen some more before taking action or giving advice.”3 Listening earns one the right to speak.

Listening is demanding, yet also a tremendous gift. Listening requires humility. Philippians 2:3, 4 says, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interest of others” (NKJV). Active listening requires giving up self for someone else, accepting others, respecting others, and encouraging others to keep on talking.

A primary component of listening includes avoiding changing the topic; listening also means being comfortable with difficult issues, such as death, anger, pain, confusion, and guilt. People sometimes feel the need to shift difficult conversations to more optimistic topics. Pastors are often too quick to speak, quote Bible texts, pray, and switch to what they feel the Lord would have people feel, think, or say. Often the last thing people need is someone changing the topic from what weighs them down with grief and concern to something that they care nothing or little about at the moment.

Another component of good listening includes awareness of cultural, personality, gender, religious, and other differences. For example, eye contact among some Southwest Native Americans may represent a hostile act, the physical distance between two speakers may vary from culture to culture (people from the Middle East tend to have less distance between them than many westerners are accustomed to), and vocal tones and speeds vary among cultures.4 We need to avoid stereotyping, yet it is helpful to be aware of differences in communication.

“Tell me about . . .”

Depending on the culture and the situation, there are also times to speak (Eccles. 3:7). Skilled counselors need to understand theories, methodologies, and be able to speak confidently and wisely in order to intervene during times of psychological and spiritual trauma. Nonetheless, most clergy could probably improve their ministries by speaking less and listening more. Training in counseling intervention strategies would be a bonus; yet, in the end, the foundation of caring includes having good listening skills.

An enormously useful phrase to encourage others to open up and share is, “Tell me about . . .” This phrase is useful in numerous contexts. Some examples, “Tell me about your ailing mother, your child in trouble, your academic stress, your tears, when you learned you had cancer, your loneliness.” I have used this phrase to connect with numerous people. I remember a lady devastated by her father’s death from cancer. By simply saying, “Tell me about your dad,” I opened the windows of emotion and ministry. Saying “Tell me about . . .” is openended and promotes active listening.

Are you actively listening to those around you? Human hearts are in pain, joy, and ambivalence; all have stories to tell, and all have emotions that need to be heard. By actively listening, you can extend God’s grace to those who so sorely need it. By listening to an aching heart, you can be a major catalyst in helping it heal. What can be more pastoral than that?

1 Anne Long, Listening (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd
Ltd., 1999).

2 Allen E. Ivey, Norma B. Gluckstern, and Mary Bradford
Ivey, Basic Attending Skills, 3rd ed. (North Amherst, MA:
Microtraining Associates, 1997).

3 Ivey, Gluckstern, and Ivey, Basic Attending Skills, 6.

4 Ivey, Gluckstern, and Ivey, Basic Attending Skills, 20.

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Daniel Schramm, DMin, serves as a chaplain at Memorial Herman Hospital, Houston, Texas, United States.

August 2009

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