I’ve worked as a hospital chaplain for more than two years now, and I’m always struck by how strange my job is. I walk in halls that see death often, if not every day. I have chosen to do the almost impossible work of helping people to name their own meanings in situations that sometimes have little meaning, purpose, or explanation. To provide an iota of comfort where comfort sometimes can be impossible to find. To show care in the face of a world that sometimes has been cruel and uncaring. 

It’s as hard as you might imagine, maybe even harder. We do not tend to listen to each other well, and even though listening is probably more than half of my job description, I’m no exception unless I pay close attention. I’ve learned that I will never have the perfect words to say to someone that will take away their pain, even if my prayer for them encompasses many of their concerns and somehow brings a new understanding to light. What I try to bring is the patience, presence, and compassion to “listen someone” into their own truth, and on National Listening Day, I have the honor of sharing some tips.  

Listening to others

  1. This one is obvious, yet difficult: Put away your phone and other distractions unless you’re expecting an urgent call. The person in front of you is worthy of your whole attention.
  2. Wait a half second longer than you think they might take to finish their thought. You’ll be surprised by what a little space and time can do. Oftentimes, we try to show each other that we’re listening by responding quickly with a question, which can cut the other person off from wrapping up what they wanted to say. You may find that by offering that extra half second or two, they’ll answer the question you were going to ask anyway.
  3. In the immortal words of Ted Lasso* (Walt Whitman), “Be curious. Not judgmental.” Seek to listen deeply and loosen your grip on your automatic mental agenda for the conversation. 
  4. We may think we’ve been through a similar situation, and yet the truth may be that we’ve had a similar feeling in our hearts, but our situations are not the same. I do not know what it is like to be losing a child to cancer, and me thinking or perhaps even pretending that I have by saying “I understand exactly what you feel” or “my friend lost a dear childhood friend to cancer” is unhelpful at best and deceitful at worst. What I’ve learned to offer instead is what is known as an empathy guess. It’s a space where I am able to tap into moments I’ve felt similar emotions – heartbreak, meaninglessness, confusion – and realize that what the other person might need is validation that their heartbreak is real, important, and straight up the worst.
  5. If in fact you have been through a similar situation, you can share this, but if this is one of the first times they’ve shared this particular story, they likely need to finish it all the way through and be asked about it before you share yours. In moments where we draw the attention to ourselves too early, instead of connecting with the other person as we imagine we are doing, we may accidentally be cutting off connection.
  6. Avoid clichéd phrases and pat advice at all costs. This can make you look like someone they can’t talk to without fear of judgment that they haven’t figured out how to solve a problem you appear to think is simple. “I hear you”, “I’m sorry”, or “my heart hurts for you and with you” are both far more connecting than immediately sharing “after a storm comes a rainbow” or “everything happens for a reason”. Author, historian, and cancer patient Kate Bowler has spoken and written powerfully about this truth.
  7. Ask if they’re interested in a listening ear and/or a partner at the drawing board. 
  8. Simply listening is not at all simple. It is hard to stay present when someone is hurting in front of you and you want to be helpful. You need to be able to stay present with yourself in moments like this in your own life in order to be able to offer this space – this gift – to others. In honor of that:

 

Listening to yourself

  1. Trust your gut, and if you’ve been taught to quiet or discredit your gut, seek a conversation partner (personal or professional) who can help you identify ways to be present with it. Ask for its guidance. Your body, mind, heart, and gut likely are far more trustworthy and resilient than you imagine them to be.
  2. Allow yourself to feel your feelings fully rather than numbing the ones that don’t feel good and amplifying the ones that do. Brené Brown was incredibly influential to my ability to do this, and if you’ve never encountered any of her work, she has a special on Netflix in which she shares her research about shame, authenticity, and self-love. She also has some excellent TED talks.
  3. If you’ve never taken a values inventory, do so. I do this activity every new year to understand what my North Stars look like. Understanding what matters to you is crucial to learning how to listen to yourself and will provide a strong sense of guidance in many difficult situations. You can even take a strengths inventory or my favorite personality test, the Enneagram, which focuses on core needs and fears, in order to get outside advice.

 

May these suggestions offer little ways to strengthen your connection with others and with yourself. You might be really surprised in the best ways possible. I know I have been, and I can’t wait to see how these surprises continue to grow as I do.

Emmie Arnold

Emmie Arnold (she/her/hers) is a hospital chaplain in New York; a Reverend in the PC(USA); avid cook; traveler (on hiatus); friend and family member to many; writer; and musician.

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