The gift of truly listening

Nicky Lock

At a national conference for Christian counsellors this weekend, we were reminded of the significance of the power of truly listening to our fellow travellers: be they spouse, children, friends, colleagues, clients or supervisees. The remarks were made in the context of a talk on developments in professional supervision practice, where practitioners were exhorted to not get lost in the complexities of supervision models, but rather to return to the simple yet difficult task of listening, thus allowing our supervisee to be self reflective in a safe and listening space. Dr Pamela Brear challenged her audience to refuse to rush in and rescue their clients/supervisees when they are struggling with complex matters, to stand aside and make room for them to discover the way forward for themselves. She spoke of listening as being “not about filling the space, but being able to wait for the words that are hard to find, to trust the waiting, to hold open the hope for the tentative speaking from the soul”.

I am challenged by her words: being someone who naturally likes to help people out of their predicament, and often having a fund of ideas and information squirelled away for many eventualities, how do I hold onto myself and allow the other to do their own exploring and discovery? How do I give the other the respect for them to struggle to find their own answers, only contributing when invited? Can I suspend internal distraction and be a listener who waits: the listener who according to modern language theory, by listening, contributes to what the speaker will say and enables the other’s brain to thrive as I become increasing attuned to their process?

Dowrick explores a similar theme in “Choosing Happiness”, where she examines the power of listening in solving conflict in the workplace and families. She says “when you listen, you are giving your time, but even more crucially you are giving your attention. You are saying to the other person, I want to know more about you. You are valuable to me and my life.”

On reading this, the behaviour of Job’s friends when they first hear of his tragedy comes to mind.

They started well:

 “When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. ……they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.”

They sat with him silently in the dirt for seven days, comforting him by their presence, but then could not help themselves in arguing with Job over his utterances. Occasionally I wonder how this great work would have been different if they had continued to offer the gift of listening as Job raged and bemoaned his fate.

And what about us – do we behave as Dowrick outlines, do we offer the gift of listening to those who matter to us:

“As an adult, you can choose to be curious and listen deeply; to talk about what really matters and listen to the others’ deepest experiences,

As an adult, you can set aside your own concerns, and

As an adult, you can say “no” to listening when that seems appropriate”.