When was the last time you felt really listened to?
In the last month, when has someone asked how you are and as you replied, you felt they genuinely cared about your answer? Perhaps you’ve received real care because the listener has avoided turning the conversation back to their own cares and worries, but instead has listened carefully and patiently.
I think we all recognise the value of good listening. And we know when it’s done well. At the end of the conversation, we feel valued, and our thoughts have become clearer. The tangles have been straightened out.
I saw the benefits when I worked as a careers adviser to teenagers. My job was to conduct one-to-one interviews in schools and colleges with young people aged 13-19 years. For a small number of those young people, it was half an hour out of a lesson they hated, and they spent the time surreptitiously checking their phone until it was over. They also managed to take the most circuitous route back to class in order to miss as much of that class as possible.
For others, however, it was clearly an unexpected gift. Here I was, offering half an hour of what one psychologist calls ‘unconditional positive regard’. Without interruptions. They would unburden their dreams to me, along with their hopes and some of the challenges they saw ahead. They revelled in the fact they were not being judged and many (although not all) would walk out of that interview room having a clearer picture of their next steps in life.
I don’t want to paint a picture that all that was required was a space to talk. Guidance skills alongside active listening and relevant information were also needed to help these teenagers. I also don’t want to underplay the very necessary training that counsellors and guidance professionals must undergo to help those struggling with more complex emotional and psychological needs.
However, I do think that listening well is immensely valuable.
It’s also a dying art.
My husband and I pastor people in our local church and those in ministry. We both recognise the huge value in offering people a space to talk and find a listening ear. Listening, however, isn’t just the act of hearing another person speak.
LISTENING IS A SKILL
Good listening is a skill.
It takes real discipline to avoid jumping in with our own agenda. We can be prone, at times, to think we fully understand what another person is feeling. We don’t. In addition, there’s often a strong temptation to liken another person’s situation to our own. Having done that, the next step we’re in danger of taking is to hand out advice in an attempt to solve their problems. Frankly, there are times when we want to ‘fix’ them. As my husband and I have grown in our understanding, however, we’ve begun to realise that this isn’t helpful. In fact, it can be harmful.
A young pastor’s wife admitted to me recently that she had nothing to offer in her church because she wasn’t very good at talking to people, or knowing what to say when people unburdened themselves to her. She and her husband had just taken up a new post and here she was, on the verge of a new ministry, feeling like she had nothing to give. I wanted to encourage her that what people most often need is to feel listened to, not ‘solved’. The value she has the potential to bring is something which is applicable to all those who offer pastoral care.
LISTEN. We can sit with people as they unpack their thoughts and attempt to ‘lay them out straight.’ A person gains clarity by simply describing the journey they’ve been on.
PRAY. Together, we can approach our heavenly father, who knows every challenge we face. He is the one who can bring them healing and wisdom.
As a pastor’s wife, I know what it feels like when people come to me hoping for wisdom and ‘tips on how to do life better’. At times, there’s an unspoken expectation that my marriage to a pastor has given me the ability to download, Matrix-like, the wisdom to mete out advice on all pastoral issues. But this just isn’t true. I don’t have special wisdom because I’m married to a pastor, I simply have what we all have—an ability to listen and pray.
Increasingly, I meet pastors' wives who are equipping themselves to care for their congregations by studying biblical counselling, spiritual direction, or gospel coaching. These are great things to add to our toolkits for pastoral care. However, in my current stage of life—and I'm sure in many others'—the time, cost, and capacity to invest in these courses isn't viable. But that doesn't mean we are not equipped for pastoral ministry. Not at all.
We can all listen and we can all pray.
We can come before the Lord with the person there in front of us, giving them the gift of unhurried time to be heard. We can approach the throne of grace with them, asking the Lord to help in ways that we could never imagine.
Jesus spent a lot of time teaching and explaining God’s Word, but he also valued the people society deemed valueless. He made space for them to talk. He made time to hear the hearts of people struggling with ill health, of those with divided hearts, of those desperate to be made whole. And he did so in spite of his disciples’ best efforts to hurry him along. In Mark’s account of the sick woman, it’s interesting to note Jesus’ response when he becomes aware that someone has touched his cloak. His disciples’ response rings with irritation and incredulity. You see the people crowding against you,’ his disciples answered, ‘and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ (Mark 5.31). But Jesus ‘kept looking around to see who had done it’ (5.32). In spite of the crush of people around him, he gave her space to tell her story. And then, of course, he healed her.
Jesus’ approach was unhurried and compassionate. He showed his love by listening first, and then acting. That’s how I’d love to shape my ministry and, in fact, all my relationships. James reminds us that ‘everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry’ (1.19).
I wonder who you will meet this coming Sunday morning.
Perhaps you intend to catch up with certain people you only see on Sundays. Or maybe you’ll be eager to rescue a roast from near cremation. Or perhaps you’ll have children tugging on your arm, whining to escape. The possibilities are endless.
But to the person in front of you, your ability to listen is what counts. It’s the way you show them just how important they are to their heavenly father. Every second you spend listening well has an impact on a life precious to God. And it may change how they approach him, how they understand his nature.
For he is a God who hears, and who cares.
1. Defined by Rogers, C.R. (1957). The necessary and sufficient of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21, 95-103.