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Cutting Edges: Listening Empathically

_MG_8608_copyBy Dr. Pamela Holliman, Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Psychotherapy at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary


Several years ago at a meeting with a Board of Ordained Ministry, a small group was interviewing a candidate for ordination who had recently graduated from seminary. One member asked the young man what he had learned in his field education experience that most surprised him. He answered, “I learned that ministry is primarily about relationships.” In a similar vein I have heard graduates return to Garrett-Evangelical and indicate they wished they had taken more pastoral care or Christian education courses. They appreciate the depth of the work they did in theology, Bible, and Church history as it grounds and enlivens their day to day  ministry. At the same time many graduates have come to a greater appreciation of relationships with people as the heart of ministry.

The local parish is one of the very few places in our society where there is the opportunity for people to be heard in ways that can be transforming. Pastors and congregations work together to maintain, direct, and administer their life together. Pastors and congregations relate to individuals and families at points of deepest need as they navigate normal stages of life from birth to death. Pastors and congregations are present for the difficult experiences of job loss, severe illness, still birth, suicide, family alienation, divorce, and the effects of violence. Pastors and congregations in their life together also provide the spaces to deepen expressions of celebration, praise, joy, and thanksgiving. In all these moments, who we are in relationship, how we relate and most importantly, how we listen to each other provide an opportunity for us to be more fully human and recognize the presence of God in each other.

However, listening is a rather difficult skill and one not even particularly valued in much of today’s United States society. People appear to be more focused on getting their point across than truly listening to each other. Conversation becomes competitive, as if communication is a sport of winners and losers rather than a means to deepen relationship. Too often a person seeking help is dismissed with advice rather than empathic listening that opens possibilities within the person and between them.

In congregations there can be a particularly difficult barrier to listening in depth to others. We are too often overly concerned with avoiding the difficult conversation. We tend to put this reluctance in the language of “caring.” We sincerely want to make things “better,” to be “supportive,” to keep everything “nice.” The language of caring with the goal of not upsetting anyone is used to cover a myriad of ways to deny, deflect, or ignore conflict, pain, disagreements, anger, sadness, shame. The concept of empathy has been misused in this pursuit.

Empathy is misunderstood as being sympathetic, kind, always nice, never confrontational, without any negative affect acknowledged or expressed. Empathy, however, as defined by analyst Heinz Kohut is “the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person.” One of the most important aspects of empathy is the ability to suspend any agenda in listening to another person. Our agendas can include our value system, our preferred approach to an issue, our feelings about the other person or the situation, what others have done in the situation, and how we want this issue to be resolved. To listen in this way is to privilege the other’s experiences, feelings, thoughts, options. Hearing in this way is too rarely available to most people in this society.

Most of us need others to hear us empathically in ways that affirm our humanity, increase our capacity to cope with reality, remind us of our limits, invite us into
truth telling, and guide us back into community. In the fellowship of the congregation, we have the privilege to help each other practice empathic listening in ways that sustain, energize, promote honest communication, and deepen relationships.

Listening empathically means embracing the negative, the difficult, the conflicted in the other. Listening empathically means naming the anger, shame, confusion that we hear, sense, and feel from the other. Listening empathically means tolerating our own discomfort, vulnerability, anxiety, and inability to fix situations for others. Listening empathically means inviting others to be heard in ways that give voice to their deepest yearnings, feelings, and needs. Empathic listening builds relationships within the love of God.


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