Listening

How do we know when we have been heard? I am not speaking about the audible piece of being heard, although that can be problematic if the person you are speaking to can’t actually hear you. I am referencing conversations where the other gives space to you, listens enough to understand what you are saying and offers feedback in a way that demonstrates that you were heard. In our culture we tend to listen only long enough to jump in with a reference to our own situation. “So your son is sick with chicken pox, let me tell you about the time I had chicken pox.” I think this is a direct result of the personal computer experience, we are used to looking for information that is pertinent to us and then drilling down to get all the relevant details. When we hear something we wonder, “Is this information that I can use, that I can relate to?”

Whatever the reason we are poor listeners and it has nothing to do with how much we care about each other. Partner can love each other with total dedication and remain terrible listeners to each other. Listening is a skills. When I attended seminary in the late 80’s the listening technique that was lifted up as authoritative was “reflective listening”, the guru behind it was a writer named Rogers. To be a reflective listener was to repeat back to the other what s/he said, it was a discipline that demonstrated that you were in fact paying attention, that you heard the other. But there was more. Rogers’ theory included an assumption that the person talking could access the solution to their dilemma if only someone else repeated back what s/he had said. So if I was troubled by a decision I had to make and shared that concern with someone and that someone repeated my words back to me something would be triggered, in hearing my words I would hear the clues to the answer I was looking for.

Reflective listening is NOT advice giving. You are not listening so that you can make a good suggestion, the answer already rests with the person who is searching for the answer, my job as the listener is to repeat her/his words back and thus help her/him to hear the words spoken that reveal the sought-after answer.

In my early years as a Minister I struggled to make this technique sound authentic. Frankly, when someone came to me to share a challenge and I parroted back their words the expression on their face betrayed a kind of confusion and frustration. In some cases s/he would just blurt out, “I already know what I said, I came to hear your thoughts.”

Over the years I have weaved the reflective listening technique into a more authentic style that fits with my strength as a pastoral care giver but also disciplines me to keep listening, even when I think I have heard enough. I never offer “advice” but I do share what I would do if it were me. I am quick to add that everyone must find their own path, that my way is often an eccentric approach and therefore is not to be followed without more thought. What I hope to achieve in this approach is to stimulate the other to see my thought process and encourage the other to do likewise, to think through the issue. By hearing me in real time walk through my response the other sees a deliberative approach, one that references a number of different considerations before arriving at a destination.

I think we listen best when we listen to others in the way we want others to listen to us. That is what I try to do. When I reach out to another I want the space to share my story and my challenge. Then I want the other to tell me how s/he would work through this challenge, if it were their life. I listen to the thought process and it often helps me to reflect on what I need to consider before I can make a sound decision.

How do you listen?