I always wanted to be a therapist.
Sitting across from Mr. Underwood in his tiny office, surrounded by books and family photos, for the first time in my young adult life, I knew I didn’t have to be okay. I could bring my anxieties, insecurities, disappointment, and pain. It was never too much for him to handle. He never seemed shocked or disgusted, judgmental, or concerned. He was steady, empathic, and understanding. Looking back, I couldn’t tell you a word that he said to me then, during my time as his client. But I’ll never forget how I felt in that room.
Today, as a therapist, I get to work with children, teens and their parents facing all kinds of challenges. No matter the presenting concern, I know my main task is simple—to listen. I hope my clients feel my warm, quiet confidence in them, my wholehearted presence as they share their stories with me. I’m grateful to walk a piece of the way with them, though this privilege is not exclusive to therapists alone.
“There’s something special about sitting with someone, where they are, without urging them forward before they’re ready.”
God has strategically placed people in your path for you to walk a piece of the way with, on this journey of life. Not necessarily to lead, lecture, or advise. Just to come beside them and listen. To be a calm, compassionate presence in their lives, in a world filled with noise and distraction. It is said that human attention is the scarcest commodity in the 21st century, and that may be true. But how much more valuable is your whole-body listening? What a gift it is to be with someone in sorrow or celebration, in grief or growing pains, to put down the phone, turn off the TV, and just listen.
Often, we shrink back from inviting conversations about the hard stuff, the truest things, because we’re afraid we’ll say the wrong thing. Let me assure you, if you listen well, you’ve given the greatest gift anyone could possibly receive in their most difficult moments. No fancy words needed.
Here are three things you can do to listen well:
- Listen deeply: Listening isn’t just about hearing the content of someone’s words, but noticing their body language and facial expressions, and picking up on the feelings stirring beneath the surface.
- Reflect: Unless someone asks you for advice directly, hold off on your own opinions or ideas, your similar experiences, or helpful mantras. Reflect their feelings back to them. “I hear how devastating it is to lose someone so important to you.” Summarize what you’ve heard them say. “It sounds like things have really been hard after your grandmother died.” Ask open-ended questions to deepen the sharing – “What part of this experience has stood out most to you?”
- Brave the silence: It can be uncomfortable to sit in silence. But resist the urge to fill the space with words. Sometimes, a simple hand on the shoulder, empathetic nod, or hand to hold can give meaning to the silence. There’s something special about sitting with someone, where they are, without urging them forward before they’re ready.
When you don’t know where to turn, know that Jesus is listening. Pray and he will be there. He doesn’t need you to be okay before you turn to him. He’ll catch your tears and comfort your pain, and it will never be too much for him to handle. When you feel impatient for him to respond to your requests, know that his work begins in the listening.