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Chaplain Resident Alyssa Muehmel

In one of my seminary classes, we had a weekly practice called “dwelling in the Word”. In this activity, we were given a passage of Scripture to read and were given one minute to read and “listen” for what God was saying to us. At the end of this minute, we would turn to a classmate and take turns sharing what we heard in the text. Each participant had one minute to share what they heard, totally uninterrupted. In fact, we were instructed to not even make affirming sounds or add interjections like “yeah!” or “how interesting!”. The listener had to do their best to focus on what the speaker was saying, and avoid plotting a response or a rebuttal in their mind. Once each person had their minute to share, volunteers would share what their partner shared with the whole class, while avoiding sharing what they themselves heard in the text. For the first few weeks, this was a clunky exercise. Partners began to interject while listening and then had to stop themselves, students shared their own thoughts intermingled with the thoughts of their partner, or misrepresented what their partner had said, revealing that they weren’t listening as closely as they had thought. In this exercise, we learned that listening is a discipline.

As I practiced this exercise over the course of a few years, I began to notice how often I wasn’t really listening when people were speaking to me. I realized that it is my tendency to plan a response when another is speaking to me. Perhaps you can relate to this. In my job as a chaplain, listening is at the very center of the work. I sit with patients in their joys and pains, and mostly just listen. My work has forced me to continue to hone this craft of listening, and it has been a delight to discover that it really works. I often finish a visit with a patient, having said very little at all, and yet they say, “thank you, I feel so much better!” or “you really helped me see this more clearly!”. I find this amusing at times, as I usually do not give this person anything that they did not already have access to within themselves. Yet I know that, through listening, I helped them feel heard, and thus feel that they are important and loved.

I still find the practice of deep listening to be challenging. I still find my mind wandering while patients are speaking to me, or notice myself planning my response. When I begin to feel anxious that I do not have a good or helpful response to their story, I pause and return to listening, and a response usually comes naturally. Often the only “response” needed is a reverent silence and assurance that they have been heard.

            When one is suffering, there are not magic words that can make their pain go away. Most often, people simply need a space to share the burden they are carrying and to place just a portion of it on someone else. If you find yourself in a situation where another is pouring out their pain, and you fear that you do not know what to say, take comfort in the fact that listening deeply can be a balm of healing in itself. Truly listening touches the wound of one’s spirit in ways that words cannot. Sharing one’s pain, and truly being heard, is the first step in the process of healing. Listening without interrupting, giving unwanted advice, offering your opinion, or getting distracted is the greatest gift you can give someone who is hurting. The discipline of listening takes practice, but is well worth the effort. A deep listening presence has the power to heal and comfort those who trust you with their pain.

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