An important part of offering pastoral care is the need to listen and hear well. Here are a few further thoughts on this.
- Prepare well. Prior to meeting up make sure you are aware of what the context and purpose of your time together is. It is often helpful to have thought through some specific questions in advance.
- Make sure the counselee has your undivided attention. Remove distractions including by making sure your phone is switched off.
- Don’t leap into the business end of the conversation. It’s important for the conversation to have a good foundational relation.
- Don’t take too long on small talk. It’s important if you are counselling as part of a couple of team that others involved are aware and agreed on approach and timings. It’s frustrating both for you and the person being counselled if everyone knows there’s serious stuff to talk about but someone keeps distracting the conversation onto other things. This may well reflect their nervousness about confrontation but can also increase the nerves of the person who is wrestling with a deep heart issue and worrying about your response.
- Use appropriate types of questions. We often emphasise the importance of “open ended questions” which begin with How, What and Why and you would expect the majority of questions to take this approach. Closed questions can help clarify and sum up. I would also suggest that you don’t need to be legalistic about the exact structure of a question. Sometimes a question that looks closed because of the tone of conversation can give someone space to flesh out and expand on their “yes/no” answer. Sometimes a statement rather than a question will draw out a response.
- Be ready to stick with an issue even when someone tries to deflect from it. This takes grace, gentleness and patience. It’s important not to come across as pushy. Sometimes this means being willing to talk about other things for a while and then circling back to something you picked up on.
- Don’t be afraid of silence. We are often too quick to fill the awkward silence with further clarifying questions or our own assumption about what the answer is. Wait a little while and the person will begin to offer an answer.
- Similarly, don’t rush to ask the next question when the person concludes. Be ready for them to offer further answers as they come to them and as their trust goes.
- Be ready to answer the questions for yourself to model openness, honesty and reflection.
- Reflect back answers “What I think I heard you say was…” to help with clarity.
It’s also worth remembering that the counsellor(s) and counselee(s) are not the only people in the room. As Christians we believe that God is present through his Holy Spirit. Ask him questions too, not as a manipulative technique but rather encourage the counselee to see this as a three way conversation. Your aim is to approach God together to allow him to work in the person’s life. So encourage the counselee to join you in prayer as you ask God to give clarity and wisdom in the situation. God knows our hearts better than we do and so we ask the Holy Spirit to bring to light those things that need to be known. As you progress in the conversation, you’ll want to bring questions to God’s Word to hear him speak to the situation too.