A Renewed SpiritualityNurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationSabbath Keeping FastingPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathFriendingA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthDeath in Dunedin: A NovelDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelPersonality Type in CongregationsBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

Grief AND thankfulness: How to listen

Lynne Baab • Thursday January 30 2020

Grief AND thankfulness: How to listen

Imagine that your friend is talking about something important. You hear hints of grief and thankfulness, and you want to listen well and draw out those two ideas. Here are some suggestions for helping your conversation partners explore grief AND thankfulness, going from the basic to the more complex.

1. Pay attention to – and avoid – typical roadblocks to listening. My personal favorite is giving advice, which turns conversations away from emotions and thoughts and focuses on practical solutions (and away from my conversation partner’s thoughts to mine!). Another common way of stopping listening is to take the conversation back to yourself: “That reminds me of when I . . .” You can also block listening by denying (“it sounds like it wasn’t THAT bad) or asking a ton of questions that push the speaker in a direction they might not have chosen. Most of us have habitual ways we block our conversation partners from continuing with their thoughts.

2. Nurture your own comfort with silence. You might try using non-verbal communication like nodding slightly when silence falls in a conversation. Give the other person a chance to gather their thoughts and continue if they want to.

3. Use non-verbal communication throughout the conversation. Give eye contact, lean forward slightly, nod, let some emotions show in your face (especially sadness if they’re talking about something sad and joy if they’re talking about something happy).

4. Use minimal encouragers, those short words and phrases that keep a conversation going, such as mmm, uh-huh, tell me more, oh, for instance, I see, right. Pay attention to make sure you are not using the same minimal encourager over and over.

5. Consider the different ways the skill of reflecting can be used: paraphrasing, summarizing and drawing implications. The first two are very similar, but paraphrasing is an attempt to simply re-state what the person said, using different words, and summarizing involves a bit more of trying to figure out the main point or central thoughts and feelings the person is expressing. “It sounds like you’re thinking a lot about . . .” “I hear a lot of frustration in your words.”

Drawing implications, a form of reflecting, must be used rarely, but it is extremely effective when used well. If someone is telling you about a sad thing that happened to them, you might draw an implication by saying, “It sounds like you’re grieving.” After you say those words, you wait to see how they respond. They may say, “Yes, I hadn’t thought about it that way,” or they may say, “No, I’m not grieving, I’m just frustrated.” In either case, “Tell me more” is a helpful way to respond.

In the light of this series of blog posts, you may hear hints of both grief and thankfulness in a conversation partner’s story. You may draw this implication: “It sounds like you feel both grief and thankfulness, and you wonder how to deal with both at the same time.”

6.  Question asking is a listening skill that can be very helpful or too invasive. Here are some questions that relate to this blog series:

  • What are you most thankful for?
  • In the midst of this difficult situation, have you experienced God’s help and companionship?
  • What are you saddest about?
  • In the past, what has helped you grieve in a healthy way?

Questions like these, asking a person to go deeper, must be followed by a nice long period of silence.

7. Personal stories can be appropriate, but only if told briefly and with the goal of giving the other person permission to continue with their story.

8. Empathy is the grounding for all good listening, and new research shows that empathy can be learned and taught. I don’t have space here to write more about empathy, but here’s an article I wrote about it.

May God give you ears to hear the stories of others, wisdom to know how to help your conversation partners explore the role of grief and thankfulness in their lives, and deep love and empathy modeled after Jesus.

Next week – Grief AND thankfulness: a story. Illustration by Dave Baab. I love to get new subscribers. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below.

Here’s my book on listening, plus three articles about listening:

Two options for Lenten devotionals (Lent begins February 26 this year):



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