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Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Types of reflecting, a listening skill

Lynne Baab • Tuesday October 31 2023

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Types of reflecting, a listening skill

The listening skill reflection or reflecting can range from simple to complex. I want to open this post with a story about the most challenging form of reflecting, drawing implications:

When we moved to New Zealand in 2007, we rented out our Seattle house. We put a lock on the door of the family room in the basement and stored our furniture and my hundreds of books there. After two years, our tenants wanted to buy the house, and the timing felt right. So we returned to Seattle and had a giant sale of most of the stuff in that family room, including most of my books. I grieved about the books for months (maybe years!).

Around that time, I got a kindle e-reader. I used it frequently and loved how portable it was. I bought kindle versions of some of those books that had been sold. In 2013, on a flight, the kindle wasn’t protected well enough, and something pressed into the screen and damaged it. After the trip, the screen turned on, but all I could see were black lines.

When I realized that my kindle was broken, I trembled for hours. It was the strangest experience, and I couldn’t figure out why I reacted that way. Of course, I knew I could buy another kindle and download those books again, but the logic of that solution didn’t penetrate my heart and soul where something dramatic was happening that I couldn’t understand.

I was telling that story in a group setting a year or two later, and someone drew an implication for me. He said, “You lost your library twice.” Oh, yes. Exactly. So helpful to see it that way. I could hardly bear to sell or give away all those books in 2009. The death of that kindle revived those emotions but intensified them because it felt like the same thing was happening again, even if my brain knew that it was different. My body was telling me that I was experiencing intense grief, even if it seemed like the reason was a bit silly.

In contrast, here's a story about the simplest form of reflecting, repeating key words or phrases:

Imagine that your friend is describing a family vacation that had some good points, but the house they rented was freezing. Your friend talks about how the heat just couldn’t keep up with the cold weather. They huddled in blankets, they spent a lot of time at coffee shops and restaurants, and they emailed with the owner of the house multiple times. “It was just so cold!” your friend says before pausing.

You nod and say ruefully, “So cold.” Your friend nods along with you, obviously feeling heard. You have used the simplest form of reflecting, repeating the same words someone said to you. When you use this simple form of reflection, it can feel awkward because it seems so obvious. Usually, however, the person feels that you were listening and that you care. This kind of reflection needs to be used sparingly because it can become robotic. Used occasionally, it’s a great way to indicate you are giving your friend your attention.

I wrote about reflecting four weeks and two weeks ago. I’ll remind you reflection involves a short statement, not a question. It has several purposes: indicating that we’re listening, sometimes guiding the conversation, and allowing the speaker to clarify.

Two additional forms of reflecting have a lot of overlap, and they fall somewhere between the complexity of drawing implications and the simplicity of repeating words or phrases. They are paraphrasing and summarizing. If I were listening to this account of a cold vacation, I might paraphrase my friend’s vacation saga by saying something like, “You had a lot of fun with your family, but that house you rented was really cold.” I might summarize by saying, “The vacation wasn’t as fun as you expected because of that cold house.” Frankly, in practice, I find paraphrasing and summarizing to be almost identical. You may be able to identify the difference between them better than I can.

I might also draw an implication. I might know my friend well enough to say, “You looked forward to this vacation for so long. The cold house really messed with your expectations.” She hasn’t talked about her expectations, but I remember discussing the vacation ahead of time. Or I might focus on emotions she hasn’t expressed but that I imagine she's feeling, so I suggest this: “It’s hard to be grateful for a vacation in a cold house.” Or this, “You hated seeing your family members so cold.”

When we draw implications, we can be wrong. I wrote two weeks ago about the way we might be corrected when we reflect back to people, allowing us to learn more about what they care most about. When we draw implications, we have to be receptive to what the other person says in response. Maybe my friend will say, “You know, despite the cold house, I am really grateful for that vacation,” or “My family members did so much better in the cold than I did. I was actually the only one who was upset about it.”

We can pray that God will give us the wisdom to draw implications that help people see and name what’s going on for them.

Only Wise God, please guide us when we converse with friends, family members, neighbors, colleagues, and others in our life. Help us to know how to reflect back in ways that show we’re listening and that we care, whether we do it in the simplest way possible or try hard to summarize or paraphrase. When the moment is right, help us draw implications that are helpful to the person we are conversing with.

(Next week: the neuroscience about loneliness. Illustration by Dave Baab: Our granddaughter asked Dave if he could paint something with a “river, mountain, tree, and cabin,” and this is the result. Dave almost never paints from his imagination, so this watercolor sketch is unique, and it’s the result of his listening to his granddaughter. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

Book highlight: My book on listening focuses on how listening plays a role in congregational ministry and mission. The book has one chapter focused specifically on listening skills and how to use them wisely. I interviewed more than 60 ministers and other congregational leaders about the ways they see listening as an essential skill for ministry within their congregations and also for their outreach to the wider community. The book is helpful for people who want to grow in listening skills in any setting.  

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