listening

Listening. What makes someone a good listener? For most of my life I experienced listening as asking for information and receiving advice. Before I went into ministry I would have assumed that when one needed someone one would find someone who had that information, ask the question, and then try to remember and absorb the advice given. If you asked me then who was a good listener I would described her/him as a person with access to good information, a person who knew what s/he was talking about, someone you could rely upon for advice.

In training to be a Minister we were given a different model of listening. Listening was less about knowing information and more about a technique, a way of allowing the person with the questions and the challenges the space, the words and the openness to find their own answers. The assumption underlying this technique was that the person who came to you likely knew her/his own answers, as a listener your role was to assist the other to get to the answer. There would be no interrupting, there would be intentional listening, there would be repeating back to the person who had come to you what s/he was saying, “I hear you saying…” This was called reflective listening.

I remember taking an elective course at the Atlantic School of Theology in pastoral listening. As I recall I was likely the only person in the class who wasn’t already a gifted listener. In some ways it was a role reversal for me from the earlier elective course I had taken in preaching. I remember the Professor who taught the listening elective class reminding me over and over to reflect the feeling of the other, not just the thoughts of the other. I have/had a very good memory and I enjoy being with people and love to know their stories so keeping track of what the other is telling me comes fairly naturally. I also don’t think I have a lot of advice worth giving or hearing, so I don’t tend to be a know-it-all. But I am a problem-solver, mostly because that is the way I like others to listen to me. And while problem-solving can be effective in many context it is generally frowned upon in a pastoral setting.

The bias of our course on pastoral listening was that the other wanted/needed to be heard. So the listener was called upon to listen and in reflecting back to the other what we are hearing we affirming the other’s challenge. Just saying, “I hear you” and “I am hearing you say” and “I am sensing that you are feeling…” is often all the other needs to hear and experience. For many, many people being heard, being listened to, is so rare that this gift often reveals deeper insights that they never expected.

The technique works like this, as I tell my story to the listener I hear myself saying things and in hearing my voice and having my story repeated back to me by the listener I hear my concern, my search, and I begin to ponder the answers to my own questions. There is a kind of revelation in this dialogue and discernment. Some call these “aha!” moments when the person being listened to comes to the realization of where they need to go with their question. The listener assists not with advice or with information but with a process.

I do think this reflective listening works. In many cases it opens up to many the wisdom that lays deep within the self. I am not sure it works for me when I needed someone to listen to me. I am also not sure if works for everyone who needs to be listened to. But it is a gift to many and a teaching I was pleased to receive.