Monday, May 18, 2015

What Kind of Listener Are You?

It seemed like a crazy assignment to me.  The professor in the Introduction to Counseling class was having us interview three individuals of our choosing to give us practice in asking questions, directing conversation, and listening.  It was to be an information-seeking interview only, for one hour, with persons of different ages, stages, and gender. Just to listen.  I didn’t see the point, but I had to do it.

So, I interviewed a high school boy whose father had recently died, a single mom with a middle-school daughter, and a newlywed young woman. For each one, I thought beforehand of a question that might lead to meaningful conversation:  “It must be so difficult for you since your dad died. How are you doing?” “You are such a good mother.  What is your greatest challenge in being a single mom?” “Tell me about your first year of marriage.” Even though they knew this was for an assignment, every one of them talked for at least an hour and a half, with tears. All I did was nod and sometimes ask a follow-up question.

When it came time to meet with me, the high school boy had been reluctant, but his mother made him follow through with his commitment. Afterward, however, he did not get to the end of my driveway before he was calling his mom (of one my dear friends) on his cell phone: “Mom! This was the best thing I’ve ever done!  Mrs. McGreevy helped me so much!”  What? But I didn’t do anything… Oh, wait.  Yes, I did.  I listened. I had listened, with no judgment, no evaluation, no agenda, no advice.  I just listened.

It was a powerful lesson to me that everyone I meet is carrying great burdens and is hurting more deeply than I know. People all around me are in need of a sympathetic and listening ear.  To listen is to do something very important for another person, something that encourages and edifies.

Good listeners hear what is being said behind the actual words that are spoken.  Active listening requires concentrated effort that notices body language and tone of voice.  Listening means not thinking through your response while the other person is speaking.  Sensitive listeners respond to comments with “door openers” that convey an interest in hearing more and that transmit two crucial messages:
“I am interested in whatever you have to say” and “I will accept you regardless of what you say.”[1]

Four active listening skills that everyone can develop are:
1.       Reflection: serving as a mirror reflecting back to the one speaking what she is really feeling, doing, and pursuing.  “What I’m hearing you say is_______.  Is that right?”
2.       Clarification: determining whether we have studied the other person’s words from enough angles to arrive at a good picture of what is meant.  It is as simple as asking, “What do you mean?” or “What is the problem, exactly?”
3.       Exploring: pursuing further understanding by asking open-ended questions rather than yes/no questions.  “Tell me how you felt when that happened.” “Why do you think that bothered you so much?” Why questions, in addition to what questions, are important for self-reflection in uncovering hidden problems that hinder spiritual growth.
4.       Acknowledging intimate communication: assuring of confidentiality and continued acceptance after sensitive information has been shared.

You never know when God will give you an opportunity to give someone “a listen,”or when you might need one. After our mentor/pastor/friend/boss in Philadelphia, Dr. James Montgomery Boice, had died, one of my more talkative friends flew there to be with me.  For an entire weekend, all she did was listen to me while I talked and cried.  She was the only one of my friends who came.  We walked all over town, went out to eat, sat in our house...and she listened.  It was so helpful for my own grief process to be able to talk as much as I needed to talk. She gave me the gift of listening with true empathy.

You never know… Early one morning last week, I had just checked my car into the dealer for service, settled into the waiting area with my hot coffee, iPad and book, when another customer began talking to me. We chatted about our cars a bit, and then he hung his jacket on the chair next to mine, sat down, and kept talking. Soon I learned that his wife had suffered a stroke six months ago and was now in a skilled nursing facility. It seemed to me that his “word quotient” had built up over all that time and now the dam had burst.  I put my book down and prayed an arrow prayer: “Okay, God, I get it. This is my assignment this morning. Please let me be of help to him.” Almost three hours later, our cars were ready, and our conversation ended.  The gentleman shook my hand and thanked me profusely.  I did not say, “Oh, it was nothing.”  It was something.  I smiled and said, “You’re so welcome.”  Because I had listened, and it had been a blessing to me to do it.

Ask God to help you hear “beneath words” and to be willing to listen when an opportunity arises.  You will give someone true encouragement, and you will be blessed.

[1]These statements as well as the following explanation of listening skills are from: Lawrence J. Crabb, Jr., and Dan B. Allender, Encouragement: the Key to Caring (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 122-125.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Real Friends: Rare Gifts

Some people just seem to have a gift for making friends.  And yet, you can’t make a friendship happen.  It just does.  Or it doesn’t. You can set up the opportunity for it to happen: you can go out for coffee, meet for lunch, go to a concert together.  But you can’t make a friendship happen.

When it does, and you realize that you have just clicked with someone, there’s that wonderful feeling of delight and wanting to know more.  So you pursue that, but the friendship has already been given.

Some friends are seasonal.  They are strong for a certain time of your life, and then they are gone. They have been friends, truly, of a sort. But real friends stick. For the long haul.

And yes, I am grateful to say, I have real friends, and to them, I am one. Here’s some of what I’ve learned about real friends:

Real friends know you’re not perfect, and extend grace to you when that becomes all too obvious.  When you fail them, they forgive you.  When you disappoint them and yourself, they stand by you. And you do the same for them.

Real friends never stop believing the best about you.  They always give you the benefit of the doubt. They cheer you on to pursue your goals, and encourage you when you fall short. They will also tell you the painful truth when you need to hear it. They give you advice for your own good, but don’t get mad when you don’t take it.

When life’s storms hit, suddenly they are there by your side.

Real friends are safe. You can be yourself. They really listen, and can keep a confidence.

You may not have seen them for years, but when you get together, it’s like yesterday. The words come easily and fast.  Laughter and tears flow freely.  The hands on the clock fly without notice.

Real friends just enjoy each other. Being in each other’s company is a pleasure, and is nourishing, not depleting.  There is a genuine appreciation, even though there may be differences of opinion and conviction.

But there is usually some deep connection about which you and your real friends agree, a shared interest or sport or vocation or identity.  My closest friends share my faith in Jesus Christ. Despite all our differences, that is at the core of who we are.

Some of my real friends and I have lunch every Monday.  Yes, that’s right—every Monday.  For 15 years, so far, although we’ve been friends longer than that. Among us six women we have seen each other through deaths of a husband, a child, parents, and friends.  We have been there for each other when we or our husbands have lost jobs, gone to graduate school, been through surgery, or retired. We take trips together to the beach where we talk, eat, shop, laugh, eat, walk, play games, laugh, eat, and do our Bible studies. We throw bridal and baby showers for each other’s children and dance at their weddings. We celebrate each other’s achievements, and give hilarious cards at birthday lunches that nearly have us thrown out of restaurants.

We belong to different political parties and Protestant denominations. There is an 18-year age range. Our personalities are vastly different. But we can tell each other anything, and we do. We earnestly pray for each other. There is godly wisdom in the group, crazy humor and straightforward truth (“Mary Beth, don’t EVER wear those jeans again!”).  I just love them.

How would you describe your real friends?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Caring for the Care-Giver

“Remember, you’re not alone in this.”  Our young assistant pastor was so sincere, leaning down to talk through my lowered car window as I drove onto the church parking lot. And I was so raw.  Tears welled up and spilled down my cheeks.  “Thank you,” I croaked.  As I drove away, I thought, “Nice thought, my friend.  But what are you going to do? What can the church do?”

My 89-year-old mother was in the hospital, again. She had moved up from Texas several months earlier. Daddy had died a year before that. She couldn’t live by herself anymore; she was falling, her macular degeneration was worsening, and she couldn’t manage that rambling ranch-style house. So she had moved into an assisted living apartment here in St. Louis, far away from her church and her few remaining but dear friends.

That was four years ago.  Now Mother is in a skilled nursing facility; she cannot get out of a chair or walk by herself because she is so frail.  My husband and I still see her almost every day. Caring for her also includes taking her to doctor visits, keeping up with her finances, bills, shopping, and personal needs. She is in a nice place with wonderful nursing care. That doesn’t sound like a big deal for me, does it?

But it is.  It is for me and for countless adult children like me, and for as many reasons as there are care-givers.  My personal challenges have been about managing time and emotions.

My time management challenges happened because I tried to keep living the same life I’d been living before Mother moved to St. Louis.  I kept up the same work schedule, which was a non-negotiable.  But I also tried to keep up my volunteer activities, and that was killing me.  I finally had to admit to myself that Mother’s being here must dictate changes, and give myself permission to say that was okay.  My new motto for this year is “Back to Sanity, Baby!” and I’ve been letting those volunteer things go, one by one.  They are things that I love to do, so it is hard.  But a stanza from one of my favorite hymns says, 

I ask thee for the daily strength to none that ask denied,
a mind to blend with outward life, while keeping at thy side,
content to fill a little space, if thou be glorified.

(“Father, I Know That All My Life,” Anna L. Waring, 1850)

My prayer is for that contentment during this time as I fill this little space in caring for my mother.

Managing my emotions is the bigger challenge.  Not that we can actually “manage” them.  They do what they do; we feel what we feel. When Mother first moved here, her deep unhappiness enveloped me like a toxic cloak.  I cried myself to sleep every night because I cannot fix what makes her unhappy.  I cannot bring Daddy back.  She cannot live in Texas with no family within 900 miles.  All the money in the world cannot buy her a new set of legs.

But several things have helped. My husband, foremost of all. He goes with me to see Mother every day that he can. He goes with us to doctor and dentist appointments. He is the voice of reason and sanity when she pushes the buttons from my childhood. And she adores him, so she is on her best behavior when he is present.

Also, as it turns out, the church can help. Our church pastoral staff visited my mother (and, therefore, me) during her hospital stays.  Recently one of them visited her skilled nursing room and offered to serve her communion.  She told me how much she liked “that nice, well-spoken young man.”  A visit like that breaks up an endless, boring day with the light of human interaction. And because it helps her, it helps me.

One of our friends gets unclaimed flowers from funeral homes, re-arranges them, and takes them to shut-ins.  She often brings an arrangement by our house for me to take to Mother, and when she does, she always brings one for me, too.  Mother loves to look at the flowers by her chair, and the flowers in our house shout God’s love to us through my friend.

Other friends have helped by meeting me for coffee or lunch, letting me talk, telling me what has helped in dealing with their own parents, giving me understanding and encouragement, and assuring me I’m not completely crazy or horrible.

With the passing of the years and God’s enabling grace, I’m now able to separate myself emotionally from Mother’s unhappiness while I try, at the same time, to do all I can for her. Part of that is setting limits and not, as my husband says, “letting the inmates run the asylum.” My brother has come from California two years in a row now to house- and mother-sit for us while we take a vacation. (Thank you, brother dear!) I take occasional trips with girlfriends to the mountains and to the beach.

What has been of greatest help to you, if you are the care-giver of an elderly parent?  I would love to know.  When this “little space” has ended, I want to be able to help those who are there, as I am now.