|Listening Presence focuses on compassion
by Stacy Sergent
Chaplain, Pastoral Care Services
In 1987 motion picture comedy in The Princess Bride, the newlywed
Princess Buttercup gives the elderly king a kiss on the cheek. When the
king asks what the kiss was for, she replies, “Because you’ve always
been so kind to me. And I won’t be seeing you again, since I plan on
killing myself once we reach the honeymoon suite.”
“Won’t that be nice?” the king responds, then shouts, “She kissed me!”
Buttercup walks away looking confused and disappointed.
Though the film gives an extreme example, most of us can relate to
Buttercup’s experience of saying something very important, only to have
our listener seriously miss the point. We know the frustration of not
feeling heard, sometimes yelling at a spouse, friend, or coworker,
“You’re not listening to me!”
In response to the prevailing missed communication, the theme of this
year’s International Pastoral Care Week is “Listening Presence.” Being
in the presence of one who truly knows how to listen can be a healing
encounter. We learn to treasure people in our lives who are able to
communicate through their simple words or gestures—sometimes even their
silent presence—that they are with us.
During a crisis in our lives, we tend to feel alone, and sense our own
responses as somehow abnormal. People experiencing grief often report
feeling as if they are going crazy, and are reticent to share their
thoughts and feelings with others for fear of what those others might
think of them. Truly listening to someone during an emotional
crisis—without judgment, anxiety, tuning out, or giving advice—can have
an enduring healing quality and is a powerful gift.
That kind of listening, however, does not come naturally to most
of us. It takes training and practice. Robert Bolton, Ph.D., author of
the book “People Skills,” breaks effective listening down into three
components: attending, following, and reflecting.
Attending involves keeping an open posture and appropriate
distance to the speaker, and giving nonverbal feedback, such as nodding
and maintaining eye contact for much of the conversation.
Following means giving nonthreatening invitations to the speaker
to go on, such as an observation of the speaker’s body language, an
open-ended question (one that cannot be answered with a simple yes or
no), or a period of silence.
Finally, reflecting includes paraphrasing what the speaker has
said in the listener’s own words; sometimes focusing especially on the
emotions the listener has picked up on or believes the speaker might be
experiencing, and summarizing the overall gist of what the speaker has
All of this sounds simple enough, and it is—except that in our culture,
it goes against much of what we have learned to do in conversation.
Silence makes most of us uncomfortable, and we try to fill it, often
with questions or comments that are informational in nature and can
distract from the speaker’s real point.
Instead of paying attention to what the speaker is saying through words
and body language, we are sometimes planning what we should say next.
Our first impulse on hearing someone put forth a problem is generally
to try coming up with a solution. For someone in crisis, however, there
is already a sense of being powerless and out of control. Judgmental or
advice-giving responses reinforce this feeling by putting the listener
in a position of power and control. In contrast, a listener who is able
to properly attend, follow, and reflect helps the speaker get in touch
with her or his own strength and resources for coping with the
situation, supporting and empowering her or him.
Effective listening is not all of what I do as a chaplain at MUSC, but
it is certainly an important part of my job. All the chaplains on our
staff have extensive training in this and other areas of ministry. We
intend, as our departmental mission states, “to meet the
spiritual/religious needs of patients, families, and staff while
respecting their individual values, beliefs, and religious orientation.”
We are available to staff, patients, and visitors in the hospital 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
A few example situations in which a call to the chaplain could be helpful include:
- A patient feeling anxious about a surgery.
- Members of the medical staff having a particularly busy and stressful shift.
- Family members of a patient struggling with a difficult diagnosis or unexpected outcome of a procedure.
- Someone requesting prayer, baptism, communion, or other religious services.
Contact the chaplain’s office at 792-9464 during weekday business
hours, or reach a chaplain anytime at pager number 18089. Our Web site
includes information about our staff and the services offered, as
well as weekly reflections written by our chaplains, which we hope will
be of use to you on your own spiritual journey.
- Grief over a recent loss affecting a patient or staff member.
Friday, Oct. 24, 2008