This post makes two assumptions: (a) that counselors are good listeners, and (b) the manner in which a counselor listens to a counselee is – at least in some ways – different from how one friend listens to another. There are plenty of exceptions to these assumptions, at least by stating them you know where I’m coming from.

Metaphor One: Relationship to the Story

Let’s start with the question, “How does (should) a counselor listen differently than a friend?” I believe the answer can be found in the metaphor: a friend listens as a participant in your story while a counselor listens as an observer of your story. This creates the tendency on the part of a friend to be self-referential in their listening; asking (whether out loud or not) questions like, “What did I do to contribute to this? What should I have done to prevent this? What do you want me to do in the future about this?”

These are not bad questions. At the right time they are very proactive and loving questions. But in the early stage of hearing someone’s struggle, they put self too much at the center of your friend’s story.

A counselor can (or, at least, should be able to) be more objective. The questions a counselor is filtering as they listen are more like, “Who are the key people and events in this story? How is this person making sense of what is happening; to whom or what are they assigning responsibility? What is most significant to this person about the story they are telling me? 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 at the right time, they allow someone to feel understood and like their concerns are at the forefront.

Metaphor Two: Incarnation

Let’s introduce a second, more theological, metaphor. Listening is incarnational – it is how we enter and get to know another person’s world. Just like Jesus’ earthly ministry began with the incarnation, so our ministry with a friend or counselee begins with entering their world and getting to know it as they experience it. This is a significant part of what it means for Christ to be our Great High Priest in the passage 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.”

Whether we are a friend or a counselor, we want to be incarnational in how we listen.

The Practice of Listening

No instruction can create or replace desire. The main skill in being a good listener is wanting to be a good listener. The core of listening is placing enough value on the other person and what he/she is saying that you quit playing your thoughts (mentally or verbally) over theirs. When you begin to do this you will find that your responses and body language almost always draw out the other person. The skills below are merely examples of things that value other people.

1. Show and Maintain Interest

Some conversations are innately more interesting because of their subject. This makes effective listening much more natural. However, there are times when our interest is given because of the value we place on the relationship instead of the subject.

2. Honor through Body Language

The majority of indicators of interest are non-verbal: eye contact, pleasant facial expressions, nodding your head, leaning forward, facing the speaker, relaxed shoulders, unfolded arms, and removing distractions (i.e., checking your phone or working on a project). 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.

3. Clarify Confusing Points

Often a confused expression or tilted head is enough to request clarification without interrupting. Good clarifying questions assume that there is a good answer for what doesn’t make sense yet. For example, it is better to ask, “How do [assumes there is an explanation] those two points fit together?” than “How can [expresses skepticism that there is an explanation] those two points fit together?” Times of confusion tend to be critical junctures where grace leaves communication.

4. Summarize Information

Summarize the key points or experiences the other person has shared before giving a response. Beyond insuring that you are responding to what the other person was actually trying to say, this has another benefit. It also allows you to clarify whether your response is to a part or whole of what was said. When we fail to summarize, it is common for partial perspectives/suggestions to come across as total generalizations/fixes.

5. Listen to Affirm / Honor

It is so easy to just listen for what needs to be different, changed, or corrected. After all, that is where the progress, growth, or change will happen as a result of communication. When we succumb to this temptation, listening becomes a very negative exercise. We also need to listen for what is good, accurate, and noble in what our friend is saying.

6. Listen Like You’re Taking a Prayer Request

The question is often asked, “How do I know if I have listened well?” Here is a good litmus test – could you pray for your friend about this topic of conversation in a way that he/she felt like accurately represented him/her to God? Until you can represent your friend’s concern in prayer, you have not listened well.

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. We become like the person who so badly wants to sleep that his desire to sleep prevents him from sleeping. Listening is best done when we’re relaxed (otherwise our fears focus our attention on ourselves instead of the other person). Giving yourself the freedom to merely ask another question if you don’t know what to say can often be the thing that makes the implementation of these other skills possible.

Questions for Reflection

  • In your words, how would you describe the difference between “listening as a participant in the story” and “listening as an observer of the story”?
  • What added significance does listening gain when you view it as an incarnational element of ministry?
  • Which of these seven skills listed would be most beneficial for you to focus on to grow as a listener?