You have probably heard this before: “Pastor, I don’t think you’re hearing what I’m saying.” Too often, unfortunately, it’s true. Let’s face it; we’re good at speaking but not always good at listening. (Perhaps some of your family members have pointed this out to you!).
After 30 years of pastoral ministry, and now a hospital chaplain, I am convinced more than ever of one thing: Pastors are not trained to listen carefully. However, with a little bit of practice, you can improve your listening skills. This can result in improved pastoral care visits, counseling, board meetings and impromptu meetings in the hall when a church member pulls you aside with that ever-famous question, “Pastor, do you have a minute?”
Here are three ways you can improve your listening skills that will impact the lives you regularly serve.
1. Don’t try to ‘fix” them. Don’t give advice, solve their problem, cheer them up or make them happy. Don’t quote the Scripture and run. Get out of the “Mr. Fix it” mindset. Your role is first to simply listen. James 1:19 commands us, “Be quick to listen and slow to speak.” Of course, this is in the context of listening to God’s word and direction, but it also can apply to patiently listening for what God wants to say through a person.
A Jewish rabbi is credited with saying, “Men have two ears, and but one tongue, that they should hear more than they speak.” Try listening 70 percent and speaking only 30 percent of the time. The other person should do most of the speaking.
2. Listen for their story. Everybody has a story, wants to be heard and wants to feel that you understand them. It’s still true that nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care. Listening to their story, problem or point of view proves that you care for and respect them (even if you disagree with them).
Before a good shepherd ever leads or corrects the sheep, the shepherd first earns their trust by caring for them. If you are analyzing what the other is saying and silently thinking of what you’re going to say next, you will truly miss hearing their story. Your job is to be ‘other-centered,’ focused on what the other person is saying. Slow down and listen for their content as well as for their emotion and intensity of voice. Notice their body language, facial expression and especially their eyes.
Practice paraphrasing and summarizing what they said back to them using their own words. This will assure them that you were truly listening. At this stage, you are listening for content.For instance,
• “So you’re saying, that you’ve tried to talk to your sister about this issue but she has refused to talk with you about it.”
• “What I hear you saying is that…”
• “If I’m hearing you right, you are…”
• “You’re telling me that…”
3. Climb down into their ‘pit’ and be with them. This is the hardest part of good listening. When a person feels that they are in a ‘pit’ (emotionally, circumstantially or spiritually), too often we crawl over to the edge of the pit, lean over the edge and call down to them, “Cheer up! It’s going to be OK. Stand on God’s promises. Now get out of that pit!” However, that’s not what they truly need at first. First they need us to climb down into their ‘pit’ and be with them. The person needs to know that you know what it feels like to be in their pit. They want someone to suffer with them, to empathize and show they understand what they’re going through. A good shepherd stays close to the sheep and crawls down into the ravine to help them out. Empathetic listening is the key. At this stage, you are listening for emotion.Here are a few examples.
• “I’m so sorry you are going through this.”
• “That sounds hard (frustrating, angering, frightening, disappointing, etc.).”
• “It sounds like you have really tried to make sense of all of this.”
• “You feel hurt because of this experience.”
• “That would frustrate me too.”
• “Why do I see tears in your eyes?”
The advantage in using these pastoral care listening skills is that the person feels listened to, understood and therefore, cared for by their pastor. In the midst of listening, the Holy Spirit often gives insights, and “Aha!” moments to the person, as they seem to solve their problem or discover a deeper meaning within their story.
This approach takes the burden off of the pastor and puts it on the Holy Spirit thus helping the pastor from falling into the trap of trying to ‘fix’ people or always having to provide the ‘right’ answer in every situation. Pastor, are you truly listening?
Lang Montgomery has served for more than 28 years as pastor in various size churches. He preaches, teaches and coaches pastors and ministry leaders. He currently serves as a hospital chaplain in Newport News, VA. He can be contacted at email@example.com.