By Bruce Doolittle
Photo by Christina on Unsplash
When I first began my training to become a hospital chaplain, I thought I would be providing a lot of scriptural wisdom to patients, sharing the Gospel with them, and praying with them. Although I do often pray with patients, I’ve learned that the foundation of my compassion ministry is not talking, but listening. I have learned that empathy is about giving the gift of true, engaged listening.
So how might we express empathy through engaged listening? First off, we need to listen for emotions, not just the words. When we ask questions, it’s better to rein in our own curiosity and instead ask questions that will help the other person process. Rather than ask yes/no questions, we should try to ask open-ended questions that start with “why?” or “how?” rather than “when?” or “where?” Try making statements, like: “I hear you are feeling sad about _______,” or “It sounds like you’re angry that _______.” If we are wrong about their sadness or anger, in most cases, people will correct us out of a desire to be understood. This helps others know they are being heard at an emotional level, not just at a content level. These types of statements are better than asking something like, “How do you feel?” Second, pay attention to body language and tone of voice. These two things often reveal a lot about how others truly think and feel, so it is prudent to factor them in when spending time face-to-face with others. Third, be okay with silence. If they are not talking, that is fine. We do not have to say anything. As the author of Ecclesiastes says, there is “a time for everything.” If someone is not talking, typically they will talk when they need to say the next thing.
Empathy means making it all about the other person. Try not to say: “Oh, my girlfriend broke up with me too!” Instead, focus on them. Be careful to not look at your watch or your cell phone—give them your undivided attention as much as possible. Try to be fully in the moment. Strive to not give unsolicited advice. This seems like a no-brainer, yet we can easily jump into fix-it mode. Sometimes empathy means holding back on using Scripture. Asking permission to use words from the Bible is being respectful to the other person because sometimes they just want to talk and have someone listen.
Empathy flows out of respect. We listen and try to “get out of the way”, trusting that the Holy Spirit is at work. After all, listening actually speaks volumes. Sometimes people just want to talk. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they don’t want advice— they just want to lament. We need to be adaptable and respectful. Even praise, such as, “You’re doing a great job!” can signal to the person that you are done listening or that you’re an expert on what a “great job” looks like. If used judiciously, asking questions like: “How are you coping with this situation now?” or “How have you coped with difficult times in the past?” can lead the other person to begin reflecting on their strengths and on how they can deal with their situation going forward. Sometimes, these questions plant a seed in our friends’ and acquaintances’ minds that they mull over after our conversation.
Who can we use these techniques and principles with? Empathic listening can be used in our communication with Christians and those who are not Christians yet. No matter what a person’s worldview is, it is affirming to have a person listen well to them. If nothing else, a person knows that they are not alone. For Christians, it’s “bearing one another’s burdens.” At times, Christians make poor choices and tough consequences result, and events out of a person’s control strike them—either way, a nonjudgmental, empathetic style of listening will allow believers to share their deeper struggles and we can help facilitate that process.
Jesus did that. Got sent His Son to us, into this messy world. Even the Twelve Disciples messed up at times, yet Christ saw their potential. Christ saw the potential of the Samaritan woman at the well. We can do the same towards others and ourselves as “there is no condemnation for those in Christ.” For non-Christians, often they have the perception that Christians are judgmental. By listening well, we break this stereotype and make them curious about why we are different. In my view, this is a subtle, but real, form of evangelism. Hopefully, they will come to a point in their lives when they ask us “for the hope that lies within.” Yet, all we are doing is following Jesus’ example of compassion.
How do we become a better demonstrator of empathy with others? First off, extend grace to ourselves. It is hard work to be “truly present” for another and push our egos aside. After a conversation, we can try to evaluate what we did well and what we could do to improve. Sometimes journaling can be an effective way to do this. We do not have to always feel victorious about every conversation and think that everything went great from an empathy point of view. Thankfully, we can ask God to help us get better at showing empathy. It is a process, an “art”, and practice makes us better. We should keep reminding ourselves that rather than having “all the answers”, it is better to listen well—especially when the person talking is struggling with a situation.
In conclusion, good listening blesses others and has the potential to draw them closer to Christ. Yet, if we can be an authentic, caring listener for others, particularly to those who are struggling emotionally and/or spiritually, they tend to relax, reflect more deeply on their life situations and begin the healing process. We can improve as listeners. Using these techniques in a sincere and loving way is exciting because it can build trust and deepen relationships. It prepares the spiritual soil for those who don’t follow Jesus yet. It shows love in action. Because many people go through their lives never really being listened to, it can lead others to life-change.
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