Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 14, 2001
Listening is a vital activity
By MSGR. JIM LISANTE
In the 20 years I've been a priest, I've spent a lot of time sitting and listening to people. In fact, listening is probably the activity ministers of all faiths do most.
Now, some people would balk at the notion of listening as an activity. But it is, nonetheless, a real activity.
True listening involves an active disposition, it requires a lively intellect and must always be accompanied by the ability to hear beyond the "audio," taking in the fuller meaning of both the words spoken and the words that aren't.
One expert suggested that pastoral counselling (that's what they call what we do), involves listening with a combination of heart, mind and soul: the heart to have true compassion or empathy for the person sitting before you, the mind to know how to direct the person to a safer harbour, and the soul to acknowledge that God works through everyone, even those most resistant to his plan.
There are two types of approach counsellors use. The image of the more passive counsellor is the popular notion from television and the movies of someone taking notes either on paper or mentally, but saying little. This is the quiet listener who hopes that just giving the person a chance to speak will lead to a solution.
And, in fact, sometimes that does happen. People who are bottled up are often helped just by having the chance to articulate their struggles and choices. Others require more active or direct counselling. They need to be helped to focus and decide on a course of action or behaviour.
As a pastoral counsellor, I fall into this category. I think people are looking for us to tell them what we think. They may not agree with us. They may not think much of the advice, but many do want reaction. They want to know what we make of the story they've just shared.
People who come to counselling are generally honing in on a problem they face. And that sometimes finds them pretty self-absorbed. Understandably, folks come because of personal pain, stress or confusion.
Once in a while, though, something interesting happens - just as it did recently, during the visit of a man I'll call Steven. Steven came to me with a host of family and personal problems. Frankly, they were heartbreaking to hear. It's going to take a lot of time for him to resolve his many crises.
But then, in the midst of his sad story, Steven did something that others rarely do. He stopped talking about himself and his problems. He looked at me directly and asked: "Sorry for all this talk about me and my problems. I know you've had a rough year, what with the loss of your closest friend to cancer. Father Jim, how are you doing?"
I think I was more taken aback by the fact that he cared than by the particular question. I gave a fairly ordinary answer, then added with great sincerity, "But thank you, Steve, for bothering to ask."
Everyone wants to be heard. Listening is a gift we share with others. Listening well is a grace for people in pain. Knowing that someone cares can be communicated in many ways: through touch, through physical assistance and, importantly, by the quality of our ability to hear with compassion.
Sometimes we take these goodhearted listeners for granted. Since they've always "lent us an ear" we presume they always will. And maybe that's so.
But as a professional in the listening business I need to tell you - it's great to be heard too. It's wonderful to have someone who stops long enough to ask: "How are you doing?"
Take the time to speak honestly. But remember to take your turn and listen, too.
(For a free copy of The Christophers News Note, How To Really Communicate, write to The Christophers, 12 East 48th St., New York, NY, 10017.)
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