“How can I listen better?”, asks Mandy*.
Mandy, a Member Carer Worker, then goes on to recounts a few examples of pastoral encounters that had been less than ideal, to her supervisor, Heather*.
“I listened for over an hour to Jessica* while she talked about changes that had to be made to her plans: the transitions to a new role and living situation, as well as frustrations with some relationships. I had been attentive throughout the conversation, utilising continuers such as ‘Yeah’ and ‘Mmm…’. When Jessica finished speaking, I said, ‘That sounds challenging’. Then there was a long silence. Mandy wondered what to say next.”
“During a pastoral encounter, Janet* talked a little about how she and her husband had tried to adopt a child some years earlier. Janet continued her story, speaking about missing out on the experience of parenting. Then she went quiet and there was a long, long silence. Mandy wondered what she could say to provide Janet with an opportunity to share further.”
“David* shared that he had been notified that his visa had finally come through. There was much excitement and relief expressed. However, sometime later, the documentation had still not arrived in the post. His family declared, ‘It’s a sign that you’re not meant to go’. Then, sometime later, the missing visa turned up out of the blue.”
What would you say?
Member Carers (MCs) provide times of ‘listening’ and ‘being with’ Cross-Cultural Workers (CCWs), in order to give them an opportunity to talk and reflect about their concerns. As MCs, we want to offer a listening ear, genuine interest and an attentive presence. We use conversation to establish a relationship, build rapport and elicit our CCWs’ problems. MCs want to facilitate the disclosure of the CCW’s concerns about their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. Some of these concerns may involve painful self-disclosures requiring skilful listening techniques (Harvey et al., 2008). MCs provide attentive listening which is a rare experience for most recipients. Very few people can listen well. Here are some common pitfalls to avoid and some techniques to experiment with.
It’s not about us
It is important that pastoral encounters are led by the CCW, so as to facilitate the disclosure of their unique story. A question worth asking yourself is, “Am I directing the conversation according to my agenda or according to the CCW’s?” If you listen to them, you will hear what is important to him or her. Certainly, if we, the MCs, are talking more than the CCW during an encounter, there is a problem!
It is also important for MCs to avoid employing a change of the topic of conversation, or switch, if we are to allow the CCW to lead the conversation. Switches can be tempting when pursuing our own agenda or we are uncomfortable with the topic raised. It is easy to create a switch by reflecting back inappropriately or through the use of questions.
Questions are often problematic
Questions often block encounters. By avoiding the use of questions, MCs can remove the power inherent in being a questioner, and in contrast, allow the CCW to lead the conversation. Asking for information can be interpreted as a threat, an imposition and the CCW may feel compelled to respond (Harvey et al., 2008). As mentioned already, questions can be used as switches and so direct the conversation towards our own agenda. It is easy for MCs to use questions to satisfy our curiosity or to avoid something we find uncomfortable such as silence.
Open questions are often necessary and appropriate at the beginning of a pastoral encounter. Open questions allow the CCW great scope for response. For example you might ask:
- “What’s happening?”
- “How are you?”
So, what techniques can we use to improve our interactions with CCWs?
Sometimes it is beneficial for the MC to undertake a little personal disclosure to establish mutuality between them and the CCW, and so encourage them to open up. However, this should be used with caution. It is easy to talk too much about ourselves.
A little spontaneity can also be used profitably in this regard if undertaken wisely. It is often useful for building rapport in the initial stages of an encounter.
Various techniques are worth experimenting with during pastoral encounters in order to improve our listening skills.
Harvey et al (2008), undertook some discourse analysis regarding chaplaincy to identify the means by which patients were invited to disclose their concerns. This research found that these pastoral encounters were similar to ordinary informal conversations. However, they also identified commonplace conversational devices, elicitation hooks, which were deployed skilfully to achieve the key spiritual activities of ‘listening’ and ‘being with’ the client. This research found that skilful chaplains use various conversational strategies, or elicitation hooks, to construct opportunities or ‘slots’ for emotional expression and self-reflection (Harvey et al., 2008).
Elicitation hooks are simple invitations to describe a state of affairs. They include both continuers, such as ‘Uh uh’ and various reflective listening practices: verbal repetition, as well as reflection of themes that have emerged, the use of metaphors, observations and politeness. These techniques, or elicitation hooks, are also beneficial for pastoral encounters with cross-cultural workers.
Mandy (MCW): What’s happening?
Betty(CCW): I’m exhausted! There’s been so much going on.
Mandy: Yeah, uh uh (short silence)
Betty: Yes, I’ve been feeling like a dog’s dinner for weeks.
Mandy: A dog’s dinner?
Betty: Yes (She elaborates further)
In this dialogue, the query was extended or ‘hooked’ by means of ‘Yeah’ and ‘uh uh’, followed by a short silence. This elicited further comment by Betty on her state of being. ‘Continuers’, or ‘pastoral noises’, are extraordinarily effective during pastoral encounters for creating opportunities for the cross-cultural worker to continue to disclose their concerns. ‘Continuers’ such as ‘Mmm…’ or ‘Uh uh’ or ‘Yeah’, have the effect of inviting more commentary from the cross-cultural worker (Harvey et al., 2008). They communicate that you are listening.
Verbal repetition is another technique which is effective for eliciting further comments by CCWs. As illustrated above, the practice of listening for a keyword or phrase whilst a client is speaking and then repeating it, can be effective at encouraging further disclosure. In this instance, Mandy responded with ‘Mmm’ and a repetition of Betty’s words, ‘feeling like a dog’s dinner’ (with appropriate intonation). Harvey et al (2008) argue that repetition reveals that the listener is closely attending to the client, as well as intentionally converging the interaction, which brings a sense of unity.
Let’s have another look at Mandy’s pastoral encounters and the techniques she chose to use in each context:
Reflecting back themes
Mandy had listened for over an hour to Jessica while she talked about changes that had to be made to her plans, including transitions to a new role and living situation, as well as frustrations with some relationships. Mandy had been attentive throughout the conversation, utilising continuers such as ‘Yeah’ and ‘Mmm…’. When Jessica finished speaking, Mandy said, ‘That sounds challenging’. Then there was a long silence. Mandy wondered what to say next.
During the pastoral encounter, Mandy noticed that there was a theme of loss in Jessica’s story.
Mandy: Wow! You are experiencing a lot of loss at the moment.
Jessica: Yes, Yes! (This was said loudly and emphatically. There was another long silence.)
Jessica: I’m feeling better now (Her face relaxed and her speech slowed).
Mandy reflected back the theme of loss she had noticed in Jessica’s story. Jessica’s response indicated that Mandy had ‘hit the nail on the head’ and that Jessica had felt heard. Mandy’s observation of Jessica’s face relaxing and the slowing of her speech confirmed that the encounter had been helpful for Jessica.
During another pastoral encounter, Janet talked a little about how she and her husband had tried to adopt a child some years earlier. Janet continued her story, speaking about missing out on the experience of parenting. Then she went quiet and there was a long, long silence. Mandy wondered what she could say to provide Janet with an opportunity to share further.
Mandy: The adoption process is really challenging.
Janet: Yes! (Spoken with emphasis)
Then Janet spoke at some length about associated griefs of that time and beyond.
Mandy’s reflection about the challenges of the experience Janet had shared, enabled further sharing by Janet.
If a CCW has been expressing frustration, the MC might say, “It sounds like you’re frustrated”. The CCW’s response can confirm, qualify or deny the MC’s reflection.
Metaphors can also be used as reflective devices.
David shared that he had been notified that his visa had finally come through. There was much excitement and relief expressed. However, sometime later, the documentation had still not arrived in the post. His family declared, ‘It’s a sign that you’re not meant to go’. Then, sometime later, the missing visa turned up out of the blue.
Mandy: It sounds like a rollercoaster ride!
David: Yes! (Nodding vigorously)
In this example Mandy uses a metaphor to reflect back.
If the MC’s reflection has hit the nail on the head, the CCW will usually respond with agreement such as an enthusiastic ‘Yes’, or nod emphatically, as David did in the example above. Alternatively, the CCW can qualify the MC’s reflection.
Reflecting back an observation you have noticed about the CCW is a useful option. For example, you might say, ‘You look a little sad’. If a CCW has been crying for some time and then changes the topic, the MC might very gently say ‘and all these tears’, to offer them an opportunity to explore their grief.
Sometimes CCWs share a concern but don’t elaborate despite the use of continuers and reflective listening techniques. At this point, politeness techniques can be employed. You could ask:
“Would you be able to tell me a little bit about how this is affecting you?”
The request has been softened in a couple of ways. This phrase uses ‘hedges’; words, phrases and clauses which help to lessen the force of an utterance. For example, ‘Would you be able to tell me…,’ ‘a little bit’ make the speaker sound less authoritative and imposing (Harvey et al., 2008).
It is worthwhile spending some time reflecting on the outcome of each pastoral encounter. Did you notice any physical signs of a change in the CCW’s mood as a result of your pastoral encounter? A relaxation of their face or their posture, the slowing of their speech, the lowering of the volume of their voice and the cessation of tears, are all possible indicators of relief given. In the examples above, Jessica’s face relaxed and her speech slowed, confirming her declaration that she felt better.
Benefits of writing verbatims
Verbatims are a useful tool to assist us to keep improving as listeners. Verbatims are produced by writing down as accurately as possible what was said by both parties immediately after a pastoral encounter. Then, you can read through the dialogue and note how many questions you asked, as well as to reflect on possible alternatives to your responses. It can also be fruitful to take your verbatim to your supervisor to reflect together on how you might improve.
While it is best that the conversation is led by the CCW, it is often helpful to seek to offer some hope when you are about to leave a pastoral encounter.
After Mandy has listened to Paul talking about his anxiety about an impending medical procedure, she sought to encourage him as the encounter wound up.
Mandy: I hope your procedure goes well and that you can go on that holiday you are looking forward to.
Prayer is also an encouragement and can offer significant hope when it is sensitively undertaken. It is easy as MCs to use prayer to assert our own agenda. It is even possible to abuse the power we have in the relationship through prayer, particularly if cross-cultural workers are vulnerable. Asking for prayer points and then sticking to those items requested, as well as the terminology that was used by the cross-cultural worker, reduces the risk of discouragement or worse.
Let’s now reflect on an example of a pastoral encounter in the Bible.
A story to consider
Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”Job 2:11-13
Job’s friends did a great job of ‘being with’ him for the first week. They had left their jobs and their lives to go to visit him. When they arrived, they visibly expressed solidarity and identified with him by tearing their robes and throwing dust on their heads in mourning for him. Even better, they sat in silence for seven days with him (as was customary for mourners at that time)!
However, after this wonderful beginning, they pursued their own agenda (Job 4ff), finding it too hard to sit with the mystery of his suffering. It is really hard to remain present with people who are experiencing suffering. It is tempting to look for solutions. Job’s friends gave into this temptation, trying to solve his problems through theological discussions. They discussed the theology of divine retribution, arguing that God punishes those who sin and blesses those who are faithful to him. They jumped to conclusions about the source of Job’s suffering and ended up ‘blocking’ the pastoral encounter. Further, they discouraged Job. While their earlier time of listening was beneficial, they didn’t end well.
It is often better to simply offer our ears, instead of offering our insights, our reasonings and our theology (Barnhart, 2016). It is best to avoid pursuing our own agenda during pastoral encounters, lest we are like Job’s friends and cause harm.
* All names of people and places in this blog have been changed to provide anonymity.
Harvey, K. et al. (2008) ‘“Elicitation Hooks”: A Discourse Analysis of Chaplain-Patient Ineraction in Pastoral and Spiritual Care’, The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counselling, 62.
Barnhart, Z. (2016) ‘What Job’s Friends Did Right’, Gospel-Centred Resources from Midwestern Seminary, 26 October. Available at: https://ftc.co/resource-library/blog-entries/what-jobs-friends-did-right/.
Kelly, E. (2012) Personhood and Presence: Self as a resource for spiritual and pastoral care. London; New York: t&tclark.
2 thoughts on “Listening well?”
It’s so good to see you persevering in writing the blog; it’s so helpful to facilitate conversations around active and helpful listening.
This is so encouraging.
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