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.”
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.
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.