I've been reading through the book The Pastor and Counseling by Jeremy Pierre and Deepak Reju. They have reminded me how the first task of pastoral ministry and pastoral counseling is humility which leads to listening well.
Listening means to be fully engaged with the person or people in front of me.
Being fully engaged means I am taking in their words, seeking to understand how they see their world.
This is intentional activity on my part as I must seek to hear the parts others play in their life; family, friends and most especially God. I can get a sense of this by what they say and what they don't say.
As I purposefully and actively listen, I can begin to see how and where their heart has bumped into their circumstances and others. I can begin to get a glimpse as to what degree their heart has been captured by God and/or is being dragged down by other people and their problems.
It is quite possible that I haven't said a word so far in my meeting with them. I haven't wanted to. I need to hear them.
Early on in my pastoral ministry in my arrogance and inexperience I assumed those speaking to me wanted me to fix what was wrong, or to give them answers they had been searching for. This arrogance indicts me as thinking I am most important person in the room and I cannot and will not listen well. This is my default mode and I must fight against this all the time.
Pierre and Reju rightly root the act of listening in the context of faithful and humble shepherding. My ultimate goal must be to lead the sheep to the Most Faithful Shepherd, because He is the most important person in the room. But to do that, faithfully and humbly, the shepherd must know the sheep, the world of the sheep, the circumstances and the heart-beat of the sheep.
Aspiring to be an active, helpful and good listener requires me to be self-aware; in all my conversations, not just in pastoral counseling situations. How am I listening to my wife; my children; my friends? Consistently assessing my every day conversations will help me in becoming a better, more helpful and active listener for all of those who are speaking to me. Here are warning signs that, when present, show me that I am more important than the person speaking and more important than the One who is with us. It shows me that I am being a selfish, arrogant, faithless "non-listener":
1. I'm already forming a response/defense while the person is speaking to me. This proves to me that what I have to say is more important than the person in front of me and what they are saying.
2. I interrupt the person speaking to me. This is a critical warning sign that I am definitely not listening well and that I am the most important person in the conversation.
3. I seek to "keep control" of the conversation by slightly raising my volume when the one who speaks tries to say something. In this, I've made a value judgment on the words needing to be spoken, and you've lost.
4. I fail to look them in the eye when they are speaking. I am distracted by the clock or my phone or papers on my desk, etc. While I'm being distracted I'm communicating to the person speaking that they are really a distraction from what I think is more important.
5. I fail to ask questions about what they just said to me. No follow-up questions can communicate that I haven't heard them and/or I don't care about what they've said.
Pierre and Reju have much to say about the responsibility we have in listening well and their book deserves a wide reading. For me, it is usually enough to remind myself, first, to shut up and listen, or take to heart what James calls me to.