Pause for thought: “Well you just didn’t listen to me, I DID tell you…”
“Well you just didn’t listen to me, I DID tell you…”
How often have we said this to a member of our family, or they have said it to us? As I write this, I am also preparing the training for our candidates in their first year on listening skills for our Formation for Licensed Ministry autumn residential weekend. Listening is foundational to ministry, and not just within pastoral care. That patient and careful listening to members of our communities, to our congregations, and ultimately to God is also crucial in discerning what God is calling us to do in a particular place and time.
Mark Goulston, in an article in the Harvard Business Review called How to Know if you Talk Too Much writes about how talking about ourselves can give us a dopamine (the pleasure hormone) hit. Because it makes us feel good, we forget to include or try and be interesting for the other person. He suggests that speaking for forty seconds without including the other person or talking about something which is relevant to them, is ‘talking too much’. Forty seconds! That is a tough message to some of us, who possibly talk for considerably more than 40 seconds at a time!
In the training for the first-year candidates for ministry we will be considering how being heard makes people feel valued, loved and understood. Listening is deeply theological; by listening we convey to the other person that they are precious, made in the image of God and loved by him. Often, we can worry more about what we are saying, rather than how we are listening in a pastoral situation. However, how often have we just wanted to talk about a problem and through talking, feel we have been able to solve it, just by processing it in the company of someone else? Sometimes the space to think and talk something through is far more helpful than any advice anyone can give us. When someone asks us good questions and allows us the space to talk, it can be very empowering and helps us to gain new insight.
In the church, if listening is a foundational ministry skill, we need to keep developing it and attending to it. Are we genuinely listening to voices in our communities and society? In pastoral situations, despite what someone may be going through, genuine listening will make them feel heard and valued, making their day perhaps a little brighter. I certainly have found it very helpful when others have given me the space to talk and have genuinely heard what I am saying. The womanist theologian Nelle Morton’s famous saying, ‘hearing into speech’ reminds us of just how empowering it is to enable someone to find their voice and be heard. They are no longer invisible.
It's tough when we are accused of not listening properly. It’s also difficult to listen well when there are so many voices crying out for our attention. But to give someone attention, even fleetingly, whether it is a stranger at a bus stop or our partner telling us about a problem at work is to convey God’s love and attention for them. It is a precious gift we can all offer each other.
Canon Dr Manon Ceridwen James