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Listening Heart-to-Heart

Have you ever experienced an ache to be known, really known? Wished for a friend who truly wanted to hear your story? Longed for someone courageous enough to ask the difficult questions, to gently draw out the pain in the deepest recesses of your heart? Have you ever, in your quiet moments of truth, yearned for a safe friend who gets the wrestling in your soul? If you have, then you can understand the heart of one needing a confidant and friend.

Compassion is feeling another's pain in your heart. Their story ceases to be an unending litany of woe, and instead becomes the emptying out life. Such sharing does come easily to the truly wounded. They agonize - Will I be heard? Will this one I've chosen to hear my pain take the time to really understand what I am thinking and feeling? Most often the courage to speak out comes only after much contemplation and wrestling.

When the pain becomes too great to bear alone, decisions are made. The most hopeless end their lives in an attempt to stop the hurting. Others attempt to escape the pain by medicating the hurt with drugs, alcohol, illicit sex or any other number of numbing agents. The daring refuse to live their life forever in pain. They are the ones who choose to seek help.

Relieving a loss or a trauma can be almost as painful as the initial event. All of us know those who have taken a chance and shared only to be rewounded, or to have their pain misconstrued and minimized. Having experienced poor advice has shored up my resolve to make certain that in counseling my goal is always to facilitate healing and not to bring about more pain. For those who chose a caring companion unwisely, there is risk of being rewounded and of prolonging the recovery.

To allow you to touch them at the point of your woundedness takes great courage. The hope is that by doing so healing will be advanced. As a heart-to-heart listener you will want to be that one who aids rather than impedes healing.

Dr. Larry Crabb, in his exceptional book SoulTalk, shares a sad commentary, "Most people go through their entire life never speaking words to another human being that come out of what is deepest within them, and most people never hear words that reach all the way into that deep place we call the soul. . . We almost never speak words that are formed in the center of our soul and pour out from our very being with power and a sense of life. And we almost never hear words that stir life within us, that pour hope into those empty spaces deep inside filled only with fear and fury and frustration."

One of the fundamental skills of good caring, is good listening. Listening is not fixing another's problem, giving advice, or analyzing feelings and emotions. It’s simply hearing the heart of another. Heart-to-heart listening begins with the basics:

Express your concern and willing presence by looking your friend in the eye.

Lean toward the speaker in a posture that says, “I really want to hear whatever you have to say.”

Touch when appropriate - a gentle squeeze of the hand, a tender pat on the arm, a solid hug.

When possible, meet in a private place where tears are free to fall and where emotions can be openly expressed.

Convey a message of hope and genuine interest. "I have time for you. I care. You‘re not alone. We can get through this together.” True listening honors the speaker.

Displaying shock or judgment will effectively shut down communication.

Allow for silence. A careful silence following the other person's talk, tells her you are not sure if she is finished or is still gathering her thoughts. Silence tells her you were actually listening, not mentally rehearsing what you want to say. If you are busy trying to think of an appropriate response, you will miss the full context of what is being said.

Don't give mandates; explore options.

Your time together is about the other, not you. It is not the time to share your story. Many a meaningful exchange has been prematurely ended with, "You think that's bad. One time I . . ."

If you're not a professional counselor, don't attempt to be one. Listen and if necessary refer your friend to a professional who can be of help.

"Good conversation is a matter of listening. When a Christian, filled with the Holy Spirit listens, she listens on three levels: she listens to what words are being said. She listens to what the person really means by those words and she listens to the voice of the Spirit within who is giving illumination to her hearing." (Karen Mains)

Words such as “go on," "tell me more about that,” "I understand,” “that must have been very difficult,” are verbal cues which encourage sharing. Be a safe person - someone who can maintain confidence, listen without judgment and is slow to give advice. Allow your friend to express fully before you start talking, and once you do be careful not to monopolize the conversation. It's more important that one feel understood, than that you give advice.

Heart-to-Heart listening involves asking thoughtful, sensitive questions. Open-ended questions ask how, what, when, where. These kinds of questions help people to gain insight into themselves and their situations.

Open-ended questions cannot be answered with a simple yes of no. Open-ended questions encourage one to elaborate on their answer and to make a full response.

“ I haven’t been through an experience like this. Would you help me understand how you feel?”

“What was the most difficult part of this for you?”

“When did you start feeling that way?”

Ask. Then listen - with full concentration. Sorrow needs to talk, talk, talk. Make sure you are “there” for her and not somewhere else in your thoughts, even if you've heard the story fifteen times before.

A useful tool that will encourage your friend to continue talking is that of repeating or rephrasing:

“Sounds like you were hurt by what they said.”

“If I understand correctly, you resented him when he turned away.”

"I'm hearing you say that you wish you could take back what you said. Is that right?"

Pat answers are often a cover for our own feelings of vulnerability ("If this happened to her, it can happen to me."), or inadequacy ("I'm in over my head.") Saying such things as, “I don’t know what you’re upset about." or, "This isn’t really so difficult. All you need to do is . . . ,” or maybe, "You need to get over this!" minimizes the pain of another.

Time for healing needs to be allowed. Do not attempt to rush the process. God gives us time and space to wrestle with the difficult issues of life, we need to do the same. To listen heart-to-heart means to avoid quick answers and easy advice. You cannot solve in 30 seconds what another has grappled with for weeks. "Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing." (Proverbs 12:18)

At the right time, in the right way you may need to speak the more difficult things. We earn the right to share the harder things with others when they are hurting. It is not a given. Great sensitivity, an ear to tuned to what God wants to say, appropriate timing - all of these will enhance your caring quotient.

It’s doubtful that much of what you say will be remembered, but one who is sorrowing will never forget your presence, your tender touch, your listening ear. You cannot fix what has happened, you cannot make it not hurt. . . but you can listen, and you can care.

Larry Crabb encourages, "We tend to underestimate the profound power of listening. We think of that as anemic: 'Well, at least I listened, but what good does that do?' I think the biggest lesson I've learned as a friend or as a husband or as a counselor is it isn't what I know; it isn't my competence that makes the difference. [It's] when I find the courage to present my being, just me in the presence of God, when that is given to another, that's where the difference is found."

You can be a heart-to-heart listener. To offer that kind of listening is a rare gift of infinite value.

My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen,
slow to speak and slow to become angry." James 1:19

By Ronda Knuth