Learning to Listen

Learning To Listen – Listening To Learn

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August 29, 2005 saw one of the most deadly storms of recent U.S. history hit the shores of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina unleashed 100+ mph winds and torrential rains across the city. The storm, over 400 miles in diameter, didn’t just leave wind and rain in its wake, it also led to the failure of the city’s aging levee system which caused massive destruction and even death across the city. For anyone who remembers seeing those images, you also saw the chaos and helplessness that followed as people were being rescued off rooftops by boat. Many took shelter in the Superdome which was also a scene of chaos and violence itself. It was a shocking and horrific scene, one which we are not accustomed to seeing in the U.S., and the recovery is still ongoing.

In the days that followed, many of those evacuated from New Orleans came to cities in Texas who rose to the challenge in an honorable and compassionate way by providing shelter, food and other necessary services. One of those places of refuge was the (now dismantled) Reunion Arena in Dallas, Texas. It is in that setting this story takes place.

I had been called as part of a team of volunteer chaplains to go in to Reunion and provide pastoral care to one of the first groups that arrived. I don’t mind confessing my anxiety as I entered the arena. I had no idea what to expect and I was fearful considering all I had seen at the Superdome. It was full of people of all ages, some milling about the concourse and some sitting on the rows and rows of green army cots that had been set up on the floor. However, it was quiet and orderly and I was encouraged to see so much help available to the evacuees.

I stood for a moment at the chaplains’ table where we were headquartered and prayed for “holy radar” – that God would lead me to the people who needed my help. As I walked along the rows of cots, mostly empty with a few adults and children scattered about, I noticed in particular one frail woman sitting very properly, knees together and hands folded resting on her lap. I sat down on the cot next to hers, our knees facing, and asked if she would like to talk. She readily accepted my offer.

And then, in a very quiet, measured voice, she began to tell me her story. She and her husband lived in one of the many homes that had flooded and had to be rescued from their rooftop. Not only that, but they were also caretakers to her disabled mother who had been a stroke patient. The mother was totally bed-ridden. As they were deposited from the boat onto dry land, they somehow made their way, with the mother, to the Superdome. Soon after they got there her husband realized it was not a good place to be and insisted they leave. He didn’t know how, but he knew they couldn’t stay in a place so volatile and desperate. So again, all three of them made their way down the highway. They walked for miles, each carrying the disabled mother, until the mother couldn’t take the stress any longer. She died along the way. Another victim of Hurricane Katrina.

The couple had no choice but to continue to walk, in spite of their grief and shock and with the body in tow. Soon after, a truck came along the road, miraculously driven by an acquaintance of the husband. The bed of the truck was already full of people trying to leave the city. The lady went on to tell me how her husband begged the man to please give them a ride as he was their only hope. The driver finally agreed, under one condition, “You can’t bring that body,” he said.

So, with tears streaming down her face but still perfectly composed, the lady looked at me and said, “So I had to leave my mother on the side of the road. That’s the hardest thing I ever did.” And then she said one thing I will never forget as long as I live, “Thank you for letting me tell you my story.”

Thank me? Thank me? I sat in stunned silence as the magnitude of what I had just heard set in. I couldn’t have spoken if I had wanted to. Even today the story overwhelms me. But it taught me a valuable lesson – which is many times the most beneficial thing we can do for each other is to listen to one another’s stories. I am reminded of a quote, “Over and over again, I am struck by the transforming significance and profound simplicity of the ministry of listening.”

James 1:19 gives us a Scriptural example, “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” (NKJV). Scripture itself encourages us to be quick to hear and slow to speak. Two perfect guidelines for practicing pastoral care skills to those in need of comfort or just affirmation. Be ready to listen, and slow to speak.

However, this skill does not come naturally to most of us, and to become a good listener requires focus and practice as does the acquisition of any worthwhile skill. Our minds are busy; we’re thinking of what we have to do that day, we’re distracted by our cell-phones, our iPads, our own thoughts, we’re thinking about what we’re going to say next, we glance at our watch, we fidget. In other words, we want our friend to hurry up and talk so we can get on with our lives. But is this helpful? Is it healing? Does this show respect? And most of all, is this how Jesus encountered others?

No. Jesus stopped. He listened. Jesus was fully present with all He encountered – He gave them His full attention. He called people by their name. He let them tell their story. He was never in a hurry. He mourned with them and was present in their pain.

As members of the body of Christ, and particularly women who have sought out this article to read, you WILL have the opportunity to do this. When people are in crisis, grief or pain, they need someone to share it with. Always remember, at times like this your presence and keen listening may be your greatest gift. Dietrich Bonheoffer said, “Christians so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others – that is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.”

And here’s another Bonheoffer quote of encouragement, “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship is listening to them. Just as the love of God begins with listening to His word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is listening to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His word, but also lends us His ear.”

So how do we do this? What are the skills necessary to become a good listener? Below I will list 10 Tools for Effective Listening. Prayerfully and patiently begin to incorporate these into the next time you are in the position someone needs a sympathetic ear.

  • Face the speaker – maintain eye contact
  • Be attentive, yet relaxed
  • Keep an open mind – do not judge
  • Listen to the words and try to picture in your mind the event or thought being described
  • Do not interrupt!
  • Do not impose your solutions or try to fix
  • Wait for the speaker to pause to ask limited clarifying questions. Ask questions for clarification only, not to probe for further details or to be intrusive.
  • Try to feel what the speaker is feeling
  • Give the speaker regular feedback; restate, summarize, reflect, validate, encourage
  • Pay attention to what isn’t said – feelings, facial expressions, gestures, posture or other non-verbal cues

Please note that you should always hold everything your friend has said in the strictest of confidence, even if that has not been stated. People are sometimes unusually open and vulnerable in times of crisis and nothing they say needs to be repeated outside of the confidence in which they have spoken to you.

Perhaps another way to look at being a good listener is to look at the other side of the coin. How do you know when someone is NOT listening? My husband and I were at a Family Life conference once and the speaker shared the following. After the session, I quickly went to the front and asked if he would share this with me, which I copied from his notes (written by Dave Rober):

I’m Not Listening

When I’m thinking about an answer while others are talking, I’m not listening.

When I give unsolicited advice, I’m not listening.

When I suggest they shouldn’t feel the way they do, I’m not listening.

When I apply a quick fix, I’m not listening.

When I fail to acknowledge their feelings, I’m not listening.

When I fail to maintain eye contact, I’m not listening.

When I don’t ask follow-up questions, I’m not listening.

When I top their story with a bigger, better story of my own, I’m not listening.

When they share a difficult experience and I counter with one of my own, I’m not listening.

Really, all I have to do is listen. I don’t have to talk, just listen.

We are all guilty of some of these, and most of the time we mean well – we really do want to help and be a good friend, we just don’t have the tools. It has been the goal of this article to give you the ability and some concrete methods of being the good listener and friend we desire to be. Be patient with yourself. As stated earlier, proficiency requires practice, but you can do this. Not only will you succeed, with the power of the Holy Spirit, you can be an outstanding representative of Him.

You have sought this website and this article because you are in ministry or you are looking for Bible-based tools to help you in your journey. Hopefully, you see now the tool of being a good listener doesn’t just have value within the body of Christ – it has value in every area of your life. These skills transfer. You will be a better spouse, parent, employee, professional, staff member, or whatever. Ask God to help you do this – He will. And the more you employ the practice of being a good listener, the better you will become, showing His love to all through your compassion and presence.

“The wise are known for their understanding, and pleasant words are persuasive.”

Proverbs 16:21

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