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Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: A “small” listening skill

Lynne Baab • Wednesday September 20 2023

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: A “small” listening skill

Imagine a scene where you are talking to someone you don’t know well. Perhaps it’s coffee hour at church, a neighborhood event, or a work or school setting. You’ve never had an extended one-on-one conversation with this person before, but in this moment, no one interrupts you, and you find yourself talking at length. They listen so well that you find yourself talking about something you’re upset about. As the conversation draws to a close, you realize that some of the burden of frustration has been lifted. You feel heard by someone who understands.

How does your companion indicate that they are listening to you? By their body language? Do they lean toward you? Keep their eyes on your eyes? Nod as you talk? Do they ask good follow-up questions that help you to feel heard? Do they show they’re listening by reflecting back to you what you’ve said, paraphrasing your thoughts?

In this post, I want to focus on one additional, specific way we show we’re listening to people, those single words or sounds like “wow,” “interesting,” “huh,” “cool,” “yes,” “hmm,” and many more. Communication scholars call them “minimal encouragers” or “minimal encourages.” Like their name implies, they encourage the speaker to keep talking because they show that we’re paying attention and want to hear more.

I had an aha moment when I first read about minimal encouragers in a communication textbook, as I was preparing to write my book on listening. I have an extended family member who habitually “sucks the air out of the room.” When I spend time with this person, I always come away feeling diminished. When I learned about minimal encouragers, I realized this person never uses them. Never. In the absence of minimal encouragers, I feel like my thoughts and feelings don’t matter.

Minimal encouragers do several things. They indicate to the person who’s talking that we’re paying attention. They encourage the person to keep talking. They enable us to participate in a conversation without changing the direction of the speaker’s thoughts. They indicate that we are doing more than waiting for our turn to talk; they convey our patience and interest in the other person’s thoughts.

In addition to my family member, I know another person who doesn’t use minimal encouragers. This other person doesn’t “suck the air out of the room.” They build on what I say rather than turning the topic back to themselves as my family member does. This person is interesting to talk to, and our conversations flow freely. Sometimes, though, I long for an indication that they are open to my continued thoughts on my current topic. A few minimal encouragers would do that. The pattern of no minimal encouragers makes me feel like I should hurry up and finish my thought so they can have a turn to talk. This might be a good thing, since I can go on and on about some topics! However, I do feel a lack of encouragement to go deeper into my topic.

This is the second post in a series about friendship, loneliness, and prayer. Here’s how I will structure this series: I will alternate posts on friendship issues with posts on specific listening skills. In the posts on listening skills, I’ll give some information about how the skill works, and then I’ll focus on how to pray about it. Listening well is such a key component of friendships. I’ll follow the same pattern in the alternate posts on friendship and loneliness issues. I’ll explain a specific issue, and I will also write about how to pray in those areas.

We can pray about this “little” listening skill I’ve mentioned today. We can pray for the perception to notice how we and others use minimal encouragers. I have prayed many times for variety in the forms of minimal encouragers I use. I get stuck in ruts. For many months, my favorite minimal encourager was “wow.” I have used “interesting” far too many times. Yes, it’s usually better to use a repetitive minimal encourager than not to use them at all, but repeating the same one over and over can make us sound like a robot. We can ask for God’s help to use minimal encouragers that feel encouraging to people we speak with.

We can also ask for God’s help to be authentic as we listen. Sadly, we can use minimal encouragers to pretend to listen while our thoughts fly off onto other topics. After all, minimal encouragers don’t require careful listening like good questions do.

This “small” listening skill makes a difference. I hope you have fun observing how you and others use it.

Jesus, you listened to so many diverse people in your years on earth. We are grateful for the record of your interactions that we can read in the Gospels. Of course, the Gospel writers didn’t record the minimal encouragers you used. Still, we know that you, the best listener imaginable, probably used every possible listening skill. Help us grow in listening so we can be better friends, family members, work colleagues, and neighbors. Specifically, please help us use minimal encouragers wisely and well so we can grow in being attentive to the real and deep issues experienced by the people we talk with.

(Next week: Praying about “learned loneliness.” Illustration by Dave Baab: Washington State coast near Copalis Beach. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

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