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Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying about listening roadblocks

Lynne Baab • Tuesday December 12 2023

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying about listening roadblocks

One of the communication textbooks I consulted for my book on listening used the term “roadblocks to listening.” The authors gave a list of four roadblocks, and sadly, I think there may be more. Today, I’ll focus on the four roadblocks from the textbook. Here’s an overview of the four:

  • Offering solutions
  • Judging
  • Denying
  • Interrogating [1]

I’ll flesh out these four roadblocks with a concrete example: I am talking with my friends who have just moved into a house. It needs more repairs than they anticipated. In addition to all the unpacking and organizing that needs to be done, they have to find contractors. They are also trying to decide if they should take legal action against the former owners.

My heart goes out to my friends. I see and feel their stress and frustration. I know how mad I would be in the same situation, and I find it hard to listen well when my mind is spinning as they talk. Here’s how each of the roadblocks would look in that conversation:

Offering solutions. “Maybe you could call your lawyer brother and ask for advice.” “My neighbors recently hired a contractor they really liked, and I could get you the phone number.” “Be sure to engage in some self-care in the midst of all this.” “Let’s call the prayer chain at church and have people pray for you.” This is my most-used roadblock, so I could list many more examples of practical advice.

Judging. “Why didn’t you read the contract more carefully?” “Your house inspector must have been an idiot.”

Denying. “You’re both so smart, you’ll figure this out.” “You should hear what happened to my college friends when they bought a house. Their situation makes yours look like peanuts.”

Interrogating. “How many items are on your repair list? Where have you looked to find contractors? How many have you interviewed? How long will the work take? Will you be able to sleep here while the work is going on? Do you have a budget for the repairs?” 

Many times, the source of these roadblocks is the inner anxiety of the listener. As we listen to others’ problems and pain, anxiety rises in us from our sense that something important is being threatened, such as our beliefs, well-being, or certainty that we have all the answers. I wrote two weeks ago about “inner noise” when we listen. These roadblocks arise from the anxiety that contributes to our inner noise. We use roadblocks to lessen our own anxiety. Here’s what’s threatened with each of the four roadblocks.

Offering solutions. Solution-giving taps into our need to take action, to be practical and strategize. If I can’t give good advice, maybe I’m not smart, competent, organized, or in control. The anxiety here lies in my need to have a solution for all problems rather than being able to sit with people experiencing uncertainty and pain.

Judging. Judgments can arise from the anxiety that if answers are hard to find, then life must be unpredictable and painful. We need clear causes! Someone needs to be at fault for us to feel safe.

Denying. Listeners sometimes use praise or reassurance to deny a problem exists. Distracting and changing the subject also deny the significance of the problem. Denial strategies get the listener off the hook, helping the listener feel less anxious about the situation. The negative emotion in the listener—anxiety—is thus transferred to the speaker, who has to cope with the original situation as well as the new emotions raised by the listener’s denial.

Interrogating. Interrogating often involves a series of questions asked at the same time, which is overwhelming for the speaker. Too many questions can have the opposite effect of what was intended. The barrage of questions can make the speaker feel defensive, exposed, and distracted from the main issue. A rapid-fire series of questions can come from the drive to action. Let’s solve this now!

Two quotations from my favorite advice columnist, Carolyn Hax, give vivid words to fuel our prayers as we try to reduce our use of these listening roadblocks:

“Act as if being sad about something — genuinely, legitimately, understandably sad — and actually being able to fix it are two different things.” [2]

“Sit with the distress, extend compassion full circle, without falling prey to the temptation to judge or blame.” [3]

Compassionate One, we want to grow in being genuinely, legitimately, and understandably sad with people we love without feeling we need to fix their pain. We want to be able to sit with the distress of others and extend compassion full circle without needing to judge or blame or ask a long series of questions. We desire to be with friends and family members without the anxiety of needing to look good, fix things, or feel significant. We want to be with them without transferring to them the anxiety we feel. Help us love like you love.

(Next week: praying to love the poverty in our friends. Illustration by Dave Baab: George Street houses, Dunedin, New Zealand. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

Related posts:

[1] Richard Bolstad and Margot Hamblett, Transforming Communication (Auckland: Longman, 1997), 88-89.
[2] Carolyn Hax, The Washington Post, May 25, 2022.
[3] Carolyn Hax, The Washington Post, June 5, 2020.

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