What do you see when you imagine a conversation? Does it involve two people, or multiple people? Is it one-sided, or dynamic? How is it structured? Who talks more, who talks less?
When I think of a conversation, the first thing I think of is sharing. When we converse, the main goal is to share parts of ourselves and learn about the other person. Turns are taken, one person talks and the other listens; there may be interruption to ask questions, to clarify; there may be exclamations of surprise or commiseration. I see two friends sitting over a cup of their hot beverage of choice, reconnecting, laughing, communicating. It's a safe image, a secure one, an image of peace and friendship.
Now, think about a time when you went to someone for help. How did you tell that person about your situation? How did that person respond? What was the most helpful about the way in which that person responded? Although a conversation is a wonderful thing, it may not always be the most constructive. The most surprising aspect of my experience with seeking help from others, is that most of the time it is not what they say that helps, it is how they listen. In cases of emotional distress, attentive, honest, and engaged listening is often more helpful than any advice, no matter how helpful and constructive it is.
As someone on the listening end, this is extremely difficult. Our immediate urge is to help the person pouring out their heart to us by trying to solve the problem. We want to make everything right. While this is an extremely normal and heart-felt reaction, it is, in a small part, selfish. It is uncomfortable to see anyone upset, and frankly painful to see a loved one in agony. Therefore, to alleviate our own discomfort, our own distress, we attempt to work through the situation as quickly as possible.
Making bread is perhaps a fitting analogy for working through emotional distress. Baking bread, by hand, of course, which is the only real way to bake bread, is a process that requires attention, care, and, most of all, time. You have to be present and active in all of the stages: mixing the ingredients, letting it rise, kneading the dough, baking, and finally letting it cool. Hurrying any of these stages leads to disaster. Time, care, and patience are also needed to help those going through troubled times. Time to let the person vocalize and reflect on their problem, care enough not to interject with easy solutions, and patience and perseverance in working through our own insecurities about the situation.
Brother Larry, Tim Hegan and I recently returned from a grant conference in Atlanta, Georgia with the Fund for Theological Education, FTE, the organization that is partially funding the internship I am lucky enough to hold. Part of the FTE's process of helping develop future church leaders is a system called Vocation Care. Through Vocation Care, people are invited to tell stories about their lives and their future as well as listen to the stories of others. These stories are initiated with “self-awakening questions”, questions that invite the teller to delve deeper within their stories and discover new aspects of their own interaction with the world.
Telling a story about yourself, especially one that involves your innermost hopes, anxieties, and feelings, immediately pushes the storyteller into a place of vulnerability, and, occasionally, emotional distress. We participated in Vocation Care exercises on our first day in Atlanta. For me, that day had started at 3:30 AM after a few hours of fitful sleep. One sunrise cab drive, a 6:00 AM flight, and a whirl-wind tour of Emory's Divinity school later, I found myself sitting in a conference room with a group of strangers, being asked to share the most significant parts of my life within a two minute time frame. “Emotionally distressed” definitely summed up my state of mind.
As I found myself moving through the process, however, I was surprised by how safe the Vocation Care model made me feel. That feeling had much to do with the Covenant of Presence we committed to at the beginning of the day. Maybe unsurprisingly, this covenant is not only pertinent to the Vocation Care model, but also contains the essence of how to listen. We all listen. We listen to our friends, our family, our coworkers, strangers on the train. Each of those listening moments is an opportunity to reach out and move that person into a place where they can feel cared for. Therefore, in an effort to make us all better listeners, I'd like to reproduce a part of the Covenant of Presence.
Be fully present, extend and presume welcome. Set aside the usual distractions of things undone from yesterday, things to do tomorrow.
Listen generously. Listen intently to what is said; listen to the feelings beneath the words. As Quaker Douglas Steere writes, “To listen another's soul into life, into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest gift we can offer to another.”
No fixing. We are not here to set someone else straight, right a wrong, or provide therapy. We are here to witness God's presence and movement in the sacred stories we share.
Suspend judgment. Set aside your judgments. By creating a space between judgments and reactions, we can listen to another person, and to ourselves, more fully.
Turn to wonder. If you find yourself becoming judgmental, cynical, or certain about what you know, try turning to wonder: “I wonder why she shared that story or made those choices?” “I wonder what my reaction teaches me?” “I wonder how my story connects to their stories?”
Hold these stories with care. There are many people who will benefit from the stories they hear...Imagine hearing another as you would listen to scripture-attentively, mindfully, and open to the holy.
Practice confidentiality care. We create a safe space by respecting the nature and content of the stories heard. If anyone asks that a story shared be kept in confidence...honor that request.
These are things I will be taking with me into my internship, especially next year when I begin my project with the wider Boston University community. However, as I already mentioned, everyone listens. So, next time you're asked to listen, try to keep those points in mind. Create a space of love and support by not trying to do something, but rather letting your mere presence and active attention show that person just how much they are cared for.