Friendship, listening, and empathy: A Prayer GuideTwo Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian LifeSabbath Keeping FastingA Renewed SpiritualityNurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationPersonality Type in CongregationsPrayers 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 NovelBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

Listening wisely to people’s stories

Lynne Baab • Thursday March 19 2015

Listening wisely to people’s stories

Recently a friend of mine had an emergency surgery. On her second day home from the hospital, I phoned her. I asked if she had the time and energy to talk, and she said yes. So I asked her about the lead-up to the surgery. How did she decide to go to the emergency room? What happened there? What tests did they give her? I tried to keep her talking for a while by using those small sounds called minimal encouragers that indicate we are listening: “hmmm” and “wow.” I tried to reflect back what I heard, using brief phrases to keep her talking: “an ultrasound” and “your husband stayed with you.”

After she had talked for five or ten minutes about the lead-up to the surgery, she changed the subject and asked me how I was doing. I answered her briefly, but based on my experience with my surgery, I knew there were two other big topics that we hadn’t talked about—her hospital stay and her thoughts and fears about recovery—so next I asked about her time in the hospital. I tried to give her ample time to talk about her hospital stay by again using minimal encouragers and reflection and by asking brief questions. Then we talked about some other topics. Later in the conversation I asked about her thoughts and fears about her recovery.

When I asked her about her hospital stay, she said she was so grateful that her sister-in-law had worked for many years on the ward where she stayed. Once the nurses found out that my friend was related to their former colleague, they gave her extra attention, and my friend saw that as a manifestation of God’s care for her. If I hadn’t moved the conversation to the topic of her hospital stay, she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to talk about the way she experienced God’s care there. Toward the end of the conversation, after she had talked about her thoughts about her recovery, she circled back to the decision to go to the emergency room, and she said that she felt God’s guidance in making that decision. Making space for enough listening time so my friend could get to the topic of God’s presence in the situation is a gift that I was determined to give her, and I tried to express to her my joy that she experienced God’s guidance and care in the midst of this medical emergency.

All traumatic events have a lead-up, a central event or events, and a recovery time. In conversations focused on medical issues, a death, a natural disaster, a job loss, or any other kind of crisis, a listener can focus a series of questions on those three periods, allowing the conversation partner enough time to talk at length about each of the three. Most happy events—such as weddings, births, and new jobs—also have a lead-up, a central event or events, and the time afterwards, and happy events can also be a topic of pastoral care listening. As happened with my friend, the conversation might shift to something else for a while, which reduces the intensity for a few minutes. The listener can then later return the conversation to the major event by asking a question that moves the conversation to a time related to the event that hasn’t been discussed yet. The listener might say something like, “You talked about the events leading up to your job loss, but I haven’t heard about what happened after you got that news.”

If given enough time, people will often get to their thoughts and feelings about God’s presence with them in the trauma or happy event. If they don’t get there, I try to open the door to that topic by saying something like, “I’m hoping you experienced God’s comfort in the midst of it” or “I’ve been praying for a sense of Jesus walking with you in this.” People often do have a sense of God’s presence in small moments in times of trauma, even if they also have big questions and concerns about what happened. Sometimes the speaker’s central spiritual experience in trauma is the absence of God. A listener can give the gift of letting the person process those feelings out loud.


Some additional resources on listening:

(During Lent I’m posting excerpts from my book on listening. If you’d like to receive an email when I put a post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Book excerpt from The Power of Listening by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Rowman & Littlefield. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.)

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