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Friendship, loneliness and prayer: A listening skill with two purposes

Lynne Baab • Tuesday October 3 2023

Friendship, loneliness and prayer: A listening skill with two purposes

Imagine that a friend is telling me about a funeral she attended. I’m watching her body language, and I say, “You look really sad.” She continues by describing how much the person meant to her. Then she outlines the whole funeral service in detail, including the postlude, a Bach organ piece in a minor key that spoke to her in her sadness. I am getting pretty bored with all the funeral details, so I pick up on the one thing she said that interests me. I love Bach, especially on an organ, so I’m hoping she’ll give some more details about that music so I can revive my interest in what she’s saying. So I say, “You found the Bach very meaningful.”

In that conversation, both of my comments are a form of reflecting, a key listening skill. Reflecting (also called reflection) involves using a brief sentence to echo something back to the speaker. We might focus on their facial expression or body language: “You’re smiling about this!” We might pick something they said to repeat almost verbatim – something very brief. We might summarize or give an insight that comes to us based on what they’ve said.

Reflecting involves a brief statement, not a question. “You have mixed feelings” is reflecting, while “Do you have mixed feelings?” is a follow-up question.

In future posts about listening skills, I’ll describe various forms of reflection, but here I want to make two points. First, reflecting is one way we indicate that we’re listening and that we’re inviting the speaker to say more. Two weeks ago I described the “small” listening skill of using minimal encouragers. Those words or sounds like hmm, yes, or wow let the person know we’re open to hearing more. Reflecting does the same, and it is easy to believe that’s the main thing reflecting does.

However, reflection also can also provide pretty strong direction for what the speaker says next. “You look really sad” in my story above invites my friend to talk about her feelings. She may or may not take me up on my offer to talk about her emotions, but I indicated my interest. “You found the Bach very meaningful” encourages her to focus on the music rather than all the many other things she might be thinking and feeling about the funeral service.

I’m writing this in a spirit of self-reflection and admission of my own need to steer conversations into topics I’m interested in. I can fool myself when I use reflection. “Really,” I tell myself, “I’m just reflecting back to the person so they know I care and am still listening.” In reality, sometimes I’m bored with what they’re saying, and I feel a strong drive to steer the conversation into a topic I care about.

Of course, it’s not always unloving to steer conversations onto topics we’re interested in. With friends, family members, neighbors, and colleagues, our goal is a conversation, not a therapy session. Conversations involve a give and take, and it would be rude to say, “Please, can we move onto another topic. I’ve heard enough about the funeral!” It is kinder to attempt to gently steer the conversation to Bach.

I don’t want us to delude ourselves that we are listening in a neutral fashion when we are actually steering conversations. Many listening skills actually steer conversations, and when we are aware of that reality, we will pray differently. While we are in the middle of a conversation, we can pray for God’s guidance. Many wise people call this “double listening” — listening both to the other person and to God’s nudges. Jesus, help me listen like you did. Help me guide this conversation in a direction that honors my friend but also stays interesting to me. Help me know what to pick up on in my friend’s words.

We can also pray about our reflecting skills while not conversing. Holy Spirit, work in my mind as I talk with people. Help me observe my conversational patterns. Help me notice when I reflect well, and help me to grow in doing that. Also, please help me notice when I reflect poorly by not picking up cues accurately or by desperately trying to change the topic while imagining that I was affirming the speaker by reflecting well. Jesus, help me listen like you did and still do.

(Next week: Saying “thank-you” to friends. Illustration by Dave Baab: a conversation in Saint Omer Park, Queenstown, New Zealand. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

Two posts on humility and listening:

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