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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 said.
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.
  • Grief over a recent loss affecting a patient or staff member.
Contact the chaplain’s office at 792-9464 during weekday business hours, or reach a chaplain anytime at pager number 18089. Our Web site at 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.

Friday, Oct. 24, 2008

The Catalyst Online is published weekly by the MUSC Office of Public Relations for the faculty, employees and students of the Medical University of South Carolina. The Catalyst Online editor, Kim Draughn, can be reached at 792-4107 or by email, Editorial copy can be submitted to The Catalyst Online and to The Catalyst in print by fax, 792-6723, or by email to To place an ad in The Catalyst hardcopy, call Island Publications at 849-1778, ext. 201.