We want everything we do as pastors to result in the spiritual development and personal flourishing of those under our care. This could be taken to mean that everything a pastor does is counseling. But it is helpful and appropriate to distinguish between things like: one another care between members, general pastoral care, formal pastoral counseling, and professional counseling.
In this brief, eight lesson series you will be equipped with the basic categories, processes, and skills of serving as a pastoral counselor. The intent is to equip you to utilize your current level of awareness regarding particular life struggles to your fullest pastoral potential.
Let’s start with the question, “How does (should) a counselor listen differently than a friend or peer?” I believe the answer can be found in a metaphor: a friend listens as a participant in your story while a counselor listens as an observer of your story. As a pastoral counselor, you are a peer stepping into the role of counselor.
Listening as a friend creates the tendency to be self-referential in your listening; asking (whether out loud or not) questions like, “What do you want me to do about this? What should I have done to prevent this?” These are not bad questions. At the right time, they are proactive and loving questions. But in the early stage of counseling, they put you too much at the center of your counselee’s story.
A counselor should be more objective. The kind of questions a counselor filters through are: “Who are the key people and events in this story? How is my counselee making sense of what is happening; to whom are they assigning responsibility? What is most significant to this person about their story? What would make the biggest difference, for better or worse, in the story I’m being told?”
These questions are not always good. From a friend they might come across as too impersonal or aloof. But from a counselor, they allow someone to feel understood and like their concerns are at the forefront.
Let’s introduce a more theological metaphor. Listening is incarnational. Listening is how we enter another person’s world. Just like Jesus’ earthly ministry began with the incarnation, so pastoral counseling begins with entering someone’s world and getting to know it as they experience it. Reflect on Hebrews 4:15-16.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”Listening is incarnational. Listening is how we enter another person’s world. Click To Tweet
Notice in this passage that incarnation did two things. First, the incarnation created empathy in Jesus – he resonated with our experience. Second, the incarnation cultivated trust in us – we were drawn near to embrace what Jesus had to offer. In pastoral counseling, listening should have the same effects: creating empathy in the pastor and cultivating trust in the counselee.
This begs the question, “What prevents us from engaging in this kind of incarnational listening?” The answer is usually neither a lack of desire (we got into ministry to help people) nor lack of ability (listening is something we are all capable of doing). The answer most often is that listening makes us uncomfortable.
When we listen well, we don’t impose our assumptions, preferences, and perspective on the other person’s experience. This is hard for pastors for two reasons. First, we like to teach, so not imposing our perspective on someone’s story takes restraint. Second, hearing someone’s difficultly, and accompanying emotions, without immediately trying to fix it is uncomfortable.
That brings us to the number one skill of counseling – being comfortable being uncomfortable.The number one skill of counseling – being comfortable being uncomfortable. Click To Tweet
Who do we think about most when we are uncomfortable? Ourselves. We focus on our discomfort in the same way get preoccupied with a jammed finger or stubbed toe. This is the opposite of being incarnational. Every sermon should end with resolution. Every counseling session will not. That’s uncomfortable.
What changes in us when we allow discomfort to make our thinking self-referential? We begin to ask ourselves “What would I do in this situation? What is my most similar experience to this?” These kinds of questions force the counselee into our world.
We also shift from “problem solving thinking” to “recall thinking.” This response puts us in teaching mode. We start recalling past sermons or Bible studies for relevant teaching points. We want something to say when person in front of us stops talking. We focus on what we might say to this person (statements) instead of what we need to know about this person (questions). Remember, we’ve just started the first session.
Now that we see the importance of listening and power of empathy, we are in a better place to ask, “How can we become more skilled at listening as a pastoral counselor?”
The Practice of Listening
Let’s start with the simple reality, no instruction can create or replace desire. The main skill in being a good listener is wanting to be a good listener. The seven techniques below are merely tangible expressions of this value.
1. Show and Maintain Interest
As we’ve said, it can be easy to allow your focus to shift towards what you are going to say next. When this happens, it is likely your next comment will not pick up where your counselee left off. This communicates that what you are thinking is more important than what they are saying. The more this occurs, the less trust there is in the counseling relationship.
2. Honor through Body Language
Indicators of attention are primarily non-verbal: eye contact, leaning forward, nodding your head as you track with the conversation, pleasant facial expressions, relaxed shoulders, and removing distractions.
When we fail to honor the other person through body language, we create a temptation for them to increase the “force” of their speaking in order to gain our attention. At a time when we want to be calming presence for our counselee, a lack of honor through body language becomes a temptation to increase their emotional intensity in order to get what their feelings understood by the person who is supposed to be helping.
3. Clarify Confusing Points
Often a confused expression or tilted head is enough to request clarification without interrupting. Expressing confusion well is a form of honor. It means we want to understand.Expressing confusion well is a form of honor. It means we want to understand. Click To Tweet
If more than a confused expression is needed, how do we express confusion well? We do this with clarifying questions which assume there is a good answer for what doesn’t make sense. For example, it is better to ask:
- “How do those two points fit together?” [assumes there is a good explanation] than
- “How can those two points both be true?” [expresses skepticism that there is an explanation]
We must remember times of confusion tend to be critical junctures when trust either grows or evaporates. Our counselee is already wrestling with whatever life difficulty caused them to reach out to us. They don’t need to also feel like they are being cross-examined.
4. Summarize Information
A step beyond clarifying is summarizing. This is when we test whether we can translate their experience into our words. This is not imposing our perspective or offering a reinterpretation but vetting how well we have entered our counselee’s world.
Summarizing can be done with classic reflective listening phrases:
- “What I hear you saying is…”
- “Would it be fair to represent what you’ve said in these words…?”
- “Would I be capturing the key parts of what you’re saying if I said…?”
Beyond ensuring that you are responding to what the other person actually said, reflective listening has another benefit. It allows you to clarify whether your response is to a part or the whole of what your counselee was trying to say.
For the directive element of pastoral counseling to be effective, the counselee needs to know that we haven’t arbitrarily reduced their experience to one component. While in the goal setting phase (next lesson) we may narrow our focus, our counselee should feel like their total experience has been heard, understood, and taken into account. Summarizing well is how we do that.
5. Listen to Affirm / Honor
When counseling, it is so easy to just listen for what needs to be different, changed, or corrected. Counseling is a problem-focused endeavor, so it is easy to fall into a problem-focused mindset.
Without being falsely (or annoyingly) positive, we also need to listen for what is good, accurate, courageous, steadfast, or faithful in what our counselee is saying. In counseling, it can be just as effective to build on strengths as it is to shore up weaknesses. Our approach to listening needs to reveal that we are seeking to do both.
6. Listen Like You’re Taking a Prayer Request
After considering so many techniques related to listening, we might need to re-ask the basic question, “How do I know if I have listened well?” Here is a good litmus test – could you pray for your counselee in a way that they felt like accurately represented them to God?
If we can pray and our counselee say, “Yes, that is what I would have wanted to say to God if I could have put into words,” then we have listened well. This simple litmus test lets us know when we have listened well enough to transition to the goal setting phase of counseling.
7. If You Don’t Know What to Say, Ask More Questions
Often the pressure to know what to say is what prevents us from listening well. Hopefully the previous points have helped alleviate this pressure. If not, this final one can help.
Give yourself the freedom to merely ask another question if you don’t know what to say. This freedom can often be the thing that makes the implementation of these other skills possible.
Instead of thinking, “What do I need to say to this person?” Ask yourself, “What do I need to know about this person or their situation in order to provide more helpful counsel?” This pivots you towards resolving confusion with good questions instead of giving generic (even if biblical) advice.
What about Note Taking?
One final subject is relevant to our discussion on listening. Should a pastoral counselor take case notes? As you listen with empathy, should you write down what you’re hearing?
Here are a few evaluative questions to help you make this decision.
(1) Do you know what to do and not do with those notes?
(2) Can you protect the information you write down?
(3) Do you know what do with those notes after the formal counseling relationship concludes?
If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then taking notes can be an effective way of retaining information, recording goals, and tracking progress between sessions. If the answer to these questions is “no,” it is better not to take notes.
If you take notes in pastoral counseling, you should let your counselee know:
(1) how these notes will be stored,
(2) who will have access to them and on what terms, and
(3) if/when/how you will dispose of the notes when counseling concludes.
The notes you take is their story that they are entrusting to you, so they should know how it will be handled.
Closing Exercise: As you finish this lesson, allow me to give you assignment. Write down the key points of this lesson on listening. Share them with at least one person in each key area of your life: home, church, recreation, friend, etc.
Invite each of those people to give you feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. Allow their feedback to shape where you place your emphasis in how you seek to grow in response to this lesson.
Follow Up Resources
- If you want to learn more about navigating conversations with someone resistant to change, consider reading “Conversations with Someone Not Ready to Change: Rolling with Resistance.”
- If you want to learn more about how effective listening makes the directive elements of your pastoral counsel more impactful, consider reading “Why Your Pastor Can’t Be More Practical than You Are Honest.”