The healing power of listening

To give another person undivided quality attention is to show love just as Jesus did – and it can transform them, says Wendy Billington

It is Sunday evening.  Jane is late for the service and slips quietly into a seat towards the back of the church next to a person of similar age to herself, who briefly gives her a welcoming smile. Jane has just started in her first teaching post and is new to the area and the church.  It’s three months since her mother died and she’s not coping well. She settles down to the service with its focus on the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

The service draws to an end and Jane greets her neighbour, Mary, and exchanges a few pleasantries. It’s apparent that Mary urgently wants to speak with someone else, so Jane excuses herself and makes for the door. Here she is greeted warmly by the pastor and is soon chatting over a cup of coffee with a couple, Gerry and Caroline, in the church hall.

This couple, about the same age as her parents, come across to Jane as genuinely caring. They seem so sincere in wanting to get to know her and to hear what she has to say about herself.  When she begins to talk about her mother’s illness and death it is as if they are walking that road with her. Does she see a tear in Caroline’s eye?

The conversation goes briefly like this:
Gerry:  “How are you settling down to your new life here?”
Jane: “ I love the teaching, but the staff aren’t all that friendly. I am tired in the evenings, but I do have a gorgeous kitten called Mitzi to welcome me when I come home and to talk to. He’s so cuddly and special.”
Caroline: “It’s great to hear you are enjoying the teaching. I love cats too – maybe I can pop round one evening and meet him. But it does sounds as if you are feeling lonely?
Jane: “Yep. I miss my Mum dreadfully.”

So how was it that Gerry and Caroline are able to encourage Jane to start sharing her concerns?
Gerry initially asks Jane how she is settling down, so giving her the opportunity to be specific in her sharing –  much better than asking a closed question, requiring just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Caroline picks up on the positives: the teaching and the kitten. She senses that Jane might be lonely and her words encourage the girl to speak about missing her Mum.

Jane needed courage to enter the church door that evening.   Mary’s mind was caught up with other concerns and was therefore unable actively to listen to Jane.  On the other hand, the pastor was caring and alert, and so introduced Jane to Gerry and Caroline who were able to put their own personal concerns to one side and give Jane their undivided attention.

This brief encounter becomes a turning point in Jane’s life. She is shown love and understanding, and begins to feel a sense of belonging to the church family and to develop a more positive attitude to the future.

In similar circumstances, how would we have responded to Jane?  To give another person undivided quality attention for just a minute or an hour is to show love just as Jesus did to the woman at the well with its life transforming consequences. 

We must not underestimate the potential healing power of listening. Think about the time when someone listened to you when you were lonely or had a crisis in your life. What were the qualities of that listener?

In a good listener we are looking for someone with warmth and sincerity, available to give space for the other person, leave aside what is preoccupying their thinking and put themselves empathetically in the shoes of the other person listening to their story and not jumping in with their own.  If we become overwhelmed and feel our own level of competence has been reached, that may be the time to consider whether there are other networks of help from which to draw, either within the church or local community. 

I can identify with Jane. When my husband left me after 18 years of marriage, I felt  alone and in need of a listening ear. I was also confused and in turmoil as I tried to soldier on running the business on my own. 

A couple came on the scene and they played a major role in my life.  They had a young family but were still able to give me their undivided attention as they listened to my pain and concerns.  Phone calls were unanswered and there were no interruptions as I off-loaded my feelings and worries. I felt accepted and valued, came to terms with my situation and gradually my trust in God and love for him deepened.

I wanted to give something back to God and it was these friends who gave me confidence to train for pastoral work which I now do within my church and community.

Listening to one another is at the heart of pastoral care. We may notice and feel compassion when we see somebody struggling in some way and want to be alongside to listen, but so often we hold back because we feel ill-equipped. My book Growing a Caring Church offers insights into ways we can help understand, listen and nurture a variety of people in different situations, including people like Jane who was experiencing a bereavement and a major life change as a single person.

Equipped with a few basic listening skills, and a genuinely caring heart, we can be used by God to help transform the lives of the people we meet in the every day; in so doing we are obeying the command to love our neighbours.

Wendy Billington is the author of Growing a Caring Church (BRF  ISBN 978 1 84101 799 0 £6.99).