A Lesson on Listening (#1 – When to Shut Up)
Yesterday, I blogged about the importance of a minister’s understanding of the different roles in which he/she might be serving, and when it comes to the role of pastor, offering pastoral care through presence and conversation requires the practice of listening. Whether you are a full-time employee of a church or a professing Christian living on mission through another vocation, it is helpful to have ears attuned to the people in your spheres of influence.
You can learn to listen through understanding four elements:
- When to shut up
- What to hear
- How to show value
- Why it matters
1. LEARN WHEN TO SHUT UP
I remember as a kid playing near the concrete curb at the end of the driveway just after it had rained. There was a hill up the road from my family’s house, so the rainwater flowed from the top of the hill, along the curb near my house, and on down the road. I would do my best to stack up tree limbs, weeds, Styrofoam cups, newspaper remnants the wind had delivered, and anything else I could find to pile up near the curb in order to divert the running water to a different path. As hard as I would try to force the flow to go in my preferred direction, it would either fizzle to nothing or simply find its way back along the curb a few yards further away from my driveway. There’s a reason why the curb was there: a drainage ditch was collecting the runoff. Some stuff is meant to go into the drain.
Let’s say a youth student comes to you and is telling his story about when he was 8. You think you are listening intently, and as you start putting the pieces together, you draw the conclusion that this youth student has “daddy issues.” They have a stunted adolescence… they distrust people of authority… and you think it all stems from the fact that the student’s father was not an active, positive role model in his life—although none of these details have come out directly in your conversation. You make a leading statement or question to your conclusion and suddenly you are redirecting the flow of conversation and the ability for this student to process his life on his own.
“You wish you had a better father figure in your life, don’t you?”
“Could you tell me more about how you’ve lacked a father figure?”
The student may not be ready for this, or your projections may be totally off base. Your conclusion may be logical… but it’s wrong. Before you know that you know that you know that your assumption is true, don’t make a leading statement. You can ask follow-up questions to seek clarity and you can repeat what has been said, but try not to add anything into the conversation that isn’t ready to be spoken. Licensed counselors can do that job, but it’s not often yours. The Spirit will make known when it is important.
Some things are meant to go into the drain, so let them go and don’t try to divert the flow of conversation. If someone approaches you and needs to unload/”word vomit”/decompress, then let them talk. If they want your advice, they’ll ask for it, but you may be better off assuming that you do not have the answer, and even if you did, it might not be the best time to share it.
Here’s the single biggest reason for being careful with when we respond and how we respond as listeners: the person sharing is looking for direction, but even you’re wisest assumptions could lead to further destruction… if you’re not full of care.
“I know someone who has the same problem as you.”
“I used to have the same problem.”
These are examples of empty sympathy. It does little to nothing to show caring support. You’re better off saying nothing at all and offering genuine care and concern by your presence alone. I know it may seem comical to think about offering care to someone without saying anything at all, but your non-verbal communication and caring presence is nothing to laugh about.
A sign of a good listener is a high comfort level with silence. Comfort in silence consoles the one struggling with the noise of chaos. Comfort in silence grants permission for the speaker to be at a loss for words. Comfort in silence should lower the anxiety of the speaker because it certainly indicates the listener is not anxious about having himself/herself be heard.
In your conversations with others, do you fight to be heard?
If someone is vulnerable with you, do you let them speak and offer them your caring presence, or do you try to quickly diagnose and fix them?
(tip #2 to be continued tomorrow)
 “It is not speaking that breaks our silence, but the anxiety to be heard.” – Thomas Merton