Pain. Doubt. Anxiety. Confusion. Anger.
You don’t have to look far to find people burdened with these battles. Our churches, hospitals, schools and workplaces are filled with them. In the midst of pain, people are longing for a trustworthy person to whom they can unburden themselves. They need someone to listen- and providing the ministry of listening is a good, noble and biblical endeavor. Paul encourages the Galatians (6:2): ‘bear one another’s burdens’.
Yet listening can be sacrificial. It is costly to help another person carry emotional pain. There is the risk of not knowing what to say. Sometimes it can be easier to practice ‘good listening’ when we are in a professional role, than in spontaneous encounters with friends, family, strangers and after church.
As a play therapist, I have had the opportunity to see what listening can do professionally. But when I lost my husband, Robin Daniels, to pneumonia in 2012, I experienced how helpful it is to be listened to. After Robin passed, it was part of my grieving process to edit and publish his two main life works: one volume on contemplative life, The Virgin Eye (Instant Apostle, 2016), and a second titled, Listening: Hearing the Heart (Instant Apostle, 2017). Working on these books, reflecting on his personal qualities, and on my experience of both listening and being listened to have led to the following thoughts on listening, which I would like to share with you.
This journey has exemplified how Robin’s gifts as a listener were both a fruit and an expression of his Christian faith and life of prayer. A gift that we can also cultivate and offer to those around us.
Robin writes: “Listening to God precedes and nurtures your listening to other people.” It was daily periods of still, silent prayer, and attending to the Word of God, that gave him an inner quiet and stillness from which intuition and wisdom could arise. He writes: “Tranquillity is the secret of insight.” The prophet Isaiah concurs: “Their strength is to sit still” (Isaiah 30:7). Allied to this, we need to find the space and courage to be silent – alone and when with another, for words that emerge from silence are more likely to have weight and impact.
An unhurried, spacious approach is necessary if we are to be patient when people seems to repeat or be slow to get to the point, and if we are to allow a person to grow at their own natural pace.
A large part of spiritual growth is about the battle against self-love. So much of our ‘poor listening’ occurs because we are self-preoccupied. Good listening draws out a loving, ‘other-centered’ stance in the following ways:
- Letting go of curiosity, which drives leading questions. Instead we let the client set the agenda for the session, and we respect their defenses.
- Letting go of the desire to prove ourselves with clever insights, and checking the desire to provide solutions. In Listening, Robin argues that a client’s self-discovered insights are more likely to bear fruit and endure because the client has ownership. ‘Solutions/advice offered by the counselor build dependence which undermines the central role of counseling which is to enable.’
- Letting go of the desire to talk about ourselves and our experiences or directing the agenda to something we would find interesting or think might be helpful. This requires profound detachment from our own opinions.
- Letting go, in informal encounters of any tendency to hog the conversation, offload, gossip or speak ill of others, or use the conversation primarily for our own needs, such as to get advice or consolation. “Oh Master grant that I may never seek, so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand…” (Francis of Assisi).
- In order to be receptive to another, we have to be relatively detached from our own pre-occupations and concerns. It is prayer – the daily tending of the inner garden – that clears this inner space. Keeping on turning the thoughts back to God when distractions crowd the mind will help us attend to the other person when we are tempted to attend to our own associations, memories, ideas and reactions to difference.
Deep listening in prayer raises our self-awareness and this is crucial if we are to be able to help others grow in self-knowledge, and tune into their own instincts and intuitions.
Prayer helps us to grow in love and acceptance in place of judging and pathologizing. This enables the counselor to see the client in their potential, and not to categorize them by their presenting problems. Robin saw the counselor’s role as being ‘a bearer of hope’.
Lastly a good listener is humble: “Always remember and keep in mind that you are not the prime healing factor. Inwardly kneeling at the feet of your Maker, and opened to His power and mercy, you are a channel of God-given insight and compassion, flowing through you” (Daniels, Listening).
It is the Holy Spirit who will provide the words you need. He will help us grow in the fruits of the Spirit (love and kindness, generosity, self-control, gentleness) that are so central to good listening. Let Galatians 5:22-23 serve as an encouragement to all Christian counselors to prioritize prayer and growth in the Christian virtues. They are not separate to your professional or social listening, but integral and essential to it.
Katherine Daniels is a British Play Therapist, and editor of her late husband’s book, Robin Daniels, The Virgin Eye: Towards a Contemplative View of Life (Instant Apostle, 2017). All quotes unless otherwise stated are from Robin Daniels, Listening: Hearing the Heart and there is more information on the webinar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iz0_ScLmNCM