August 26, 2013

Competent Comforting 3 - The Listening

By the time your friend wants to start talking, which can be from a few hours to a few days, you've hopefully been able to communicate effectively that you're completely present to help tend to their needs. And now is the to make sure you can be completely present and able to suspend you own internal dialogue for a while.

If you can't do this right now, that's ok. Don't try to force it. Find a way to take a short break or gracefully leave and come back another time in the near future. This is going to be work, and faking it will be more uncomfortable than parting and returning.

Some folks seem to be natural listeners in conversations. This isn't necessarily a sign of good listening skills, so don't go on the assumption that this part will be easy if you're one of those natural listeners. You're going to hear a wide range of things, some of which can provoke strong reactions within you.

But if you've looked at your own grief and pain, talked about it with someone else, and know your reactions, you're in a far better position to be an effective listener for your friend than most people. Even so, there are some things to remember that seem simple and common sense that are good to remember in a time when emotions can take over your mind.

1. Stop talking.
You'd think this one wouldn't need to be said, but nervousness can make us start talking too much.

2. Put your friend at ease.
Make them feel comfortable and welcome to talk. You've likely done a lot of this already if you've made connection with your presence.

3. Show that you want to listen.
Look and act interested. Don't look for distractions like a magazine or tv. Look them in the eyes.

4. Remove any distractions.
Close a door, turn off the tv, etc.

5. Sit at their eye level.
This is a work of equality and commonality. Don't be afraid to move a chair or something if the person is in bed. Don't let yourself be positioned above the speaker; this is a sharing of a human experience we will all go through.

6. Empathize with them.
Try to understand their world. Don't try to cheer them up or change their perspective. Even though you're not the primary speaker, this is a communion, not repair work.

7. Be patient.
Don't interrupt. Don't rush. Don't finish their sentences.

8. Ask open-ended questions.
Don't assume that they don't want to talk about things; it may be more difficult than normal for them to get started. Help them to talk by avoiding yes/no questions.

9. Listen for the message behind the words.
People may speak more abstractly or metaphorically. Look for the emotions under the words instead of the literal meanings.

10. Reflect the feelings and message back to the speaker.
Let them know you really do understand. If you don't, that's ok. Admit it and ask gently for some clarification.

11. Listen attentively.
Don't think of your response while they're speaking. There are probably uncomfortable silences already, so use those times to think about your response.

12. Be aware of yourself.
What's happening within you? What words or ideas are making you react physically and psychologically?

13. Don't feel like you need to have any answers.
"I don't know" and "I don't understand this, either" can be the best responses of all. They're honest, real, and vulnerable. Don't feel that you have to make up something profound or wise. We're here to listen, not to fix things.

14. Relax.
Breathe deeply. Remember that you're really there just to be there. You don't have to do anything else.

15. Don't think think of these tips as rules you have to follow!
These are tips and guidelines, not commandments. If you mess up somehow, be genuine and apologize if you need to.

16. Stop talking.
Yep, stop talking. Everything else in this list depends on this, right? Make sure you're not talking to yourself, too.

Real listening requires us to suspend our self for a time. Our agendas, desires, distractions, needs, we have to set these aside for a time to truly connect with our listening. We lay down our own life for a time so that we can step in and help our friend carry their burden.

Real listening transforms people and relationships. It brings about a bond that can transcend our words to describe it. It brings gratitude to both people.

It helps create a space in the frantic busy-ness of our lives for Jesus to enter and bring the power of His love. And remember again, that by loving our friends in this way, we're loving God and ourselves at the same time.

For a great book on listening, I can't recommend The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships by Michael P. Nichols enough. It's an easy, enjoyable read, and you'll find yourself going back through it over the years. If you buy a paper copy, buy more than one, you'll be loaning it out to your friends more often than you realize!

Part 1
Part 2

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