From July 18, 2014
by Pastor Cliff
Persons preparing for full-time Christian ministry are often tested on how well they can speak. During my last year in seminary, we had to stand in the chapel and deliver a sermon before our peers and before a video camera. Our peers then critiqued our sermon. We later had to go watch the video with the preaching professor, who critiqued it even more. But no one ever tested my ability to listen, even though listening is an important ministry in the Church.
The apostle James encourages us to be “quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19). True religion is caring for others, including listening to them, in their distress. Listening is a ministry whose importance is being recognized more and more as time goes by. Counseling centers that engage in the ministry of listening and centers of spiritual formation that offer the services of spiritual directors are flourishing like never before. But one need not have a counseling degree or certification in spiritual direction to engage in the ministry of listening. Every one of us can learn to become a good listener; every one of us can learn to exercise the ministry of listening, with a little practice and patience. There are some basic steps to becoming a good listener and exercising the ministry of listening that are accessible to all of us.
Step 1: Encourage verbal sharing. That is, encourage others to open up and talk to you. Be anxious to let others talk about themselves instead of focusing on your own concerns. Ask open-ended questions, not questions that can be answered with yes or no. Make it your goal to really get to know what the other person is thinking. After the person shares with you, mirror it back to make sure you heard what was being said. That is, repeat back what you think you heard.Being a good listener does not mean we have all the answers to life’s perplexities. I would like to encourage you to study and practice the ministry of listening. It is a ministry that you can perform practically anywhere you happen to be – at work, in the grocery store, at the ball field, at the hospital, or at church. Listening is a ministry that comes from God. The good news is that God listens to us. Listening to our prayers is one of God’s good gifts to us (James 1:17). Our ministry, in return, is to listen to others. May God help us all know when to keep silent and when to exercise the ministry of listening.
Now at this point, it is always tempting to jump in and give advice. After we get just a little bit of information, we are always ready to say what we think ought to be done. Right? But this is no place to give advice. When listening, we must learn to keep our shoulds to ourselves. Listening is the exact opposite of blaming or judging or giving advice. Listening is not preaching. Our goal is to encourage verbal sharing.
Step 2: Validate. Affirm as legitimate the feelings or thoughts that have been expressed. By validating what we have heard, we are showing acceptance of the other person. We are letting her know that what she is feeling is not totally off the wall. By validating others’ feelings, we are affirming their worth and goodness. We are letting them know that they are not the worst sinner in the world but that what they are feeling is perfectly human and common humanity. We should never be phony in complimenting another person. But at the same time, we can let others know what their unique value is to us. We can compliment and thank them for sharing something so personal with us.
Step 3: Empathize. At this point, we share others’ joy and enter into their pain with them. The way to show empathy is to say, “I think I understand how you feel.” It is important at this point that there be eye contact. Such emotions as hurt, anger, fear, sadness and frustration often come out in bodily gestures. In order to fully understand another person so that we may empathize with them, we need to be sensitive to silent body language, as well as spoken words. Our goal should always be to better understand. And sometimes that is all people want: to be understood and accepted, and have their feelings affirmed.
See you at church on Sunday!