When is empathetic listening not enough?

It has been several weeks since I last wrote a blog post, primarily due to a post-covid intense season of travel and ministry. But even during this period, a question has been nagging me (as questions often do): When is empathetic listening not enough? Not just any kind of listening, but a quality of listening defined by one crisis intervention specialist as ‘a dynamic and compassionate process that calls for more than taking in someone else’s words’.

In the past months and even years I have at times listened to the stories of some around the world who have been hurt or experienced toxic situations of abuse from leaders, whether in areas of finances, sexually, or spiritual control. This has included in my own organization as well as in others. In these sad and disappointing times I have tried to listen, and to listen in an empathetic way, allowing my feelings to be engaged. When possible I have tried to direct the person to others who I felt could help, only to find out later that more often than not nothing seemed to have been done for whatever reasons.

I am not saying that I am a wonderful empathetic listener: in fact I have so much to learn. But as much as I want to be more skilled in listening, being a compassionate and attentive presence to others, not trying to ‘fix’ but holding in love, a tension continues to struggle within me. And here it is: Is it enough to listen to someone, however empathetically? At what point do I need to take more action, to see needed change?

According to one consultant, empathetic listening involves four stages: 1) Mimicking content 2) Rephrasing content 3) Reflecting feelings 4) Rephrasing content and reflecting feelings. (Covey 2000). All four of these stages involve being involved in listening, not looking at our watch wondering when this torture will end, not smiling and nodding up and down trying to seem engaged. This last one I have done more than once in my life, to my shame, especially when being very tried and as an exhausted introvert I just couldn’t take one more difficult conversation.

But according to the first definition I started with in this post, empathetic listening is a dynamic and compassionate process that involves MORE than just taking in someone else’s words. So are the above four things enough? Is it enough to listen and even feel with that person, then walk away and not DO anything? We do need to be careful not to try and ‘fix’ things, as I and others in the ‘helping professions’ can easily fall into. Yet at the same time, being attentive to not ‘fixing’ should not cause us to walk away and shirk a responsibility we are called to face.

As someone who is a practicing spiritual director, I have had times listening to someone when I knew it was not enough, and I needed to refer the person to someone more qualified than myself in a given area: whether a trauma therapist, a marriage counselor, a life coach. It is pride to think that listening to someone may be enough for them, as if we are gracing someone with our wonderful healing presence alone. Having a humility to know when to refer someone to another is a key mark of being a truly helpful presence.

So what do we do when it is not enough to empathetically listen? What more is required of us at times should be a question at least we are attentive to. That is what I have been struggling with again recently. Here are some things we can do:

  1. Direct the person to talk to the key resource needed, either to help in a toxic situation or provide resource of grace and healing if needed. This should not be us ‘passing the buck’, trying to not be involved. It should be a genuine attempt to bring steps of reconciliation and perhaps even in small ways lessen the toxic atmosphere the person is facing.
  2. Be wary of a silence that communicates that you are not willing to ‘stir the waters’ on behalf of the person you have listened to. If you are not sure you can help, say so. Don’t overpromise or create false expectations that will only deepen the pain and lack of safety the person is already experiencing.
  3. There may be a need to take things further at great cost to yourself, perhaps that cost will be a ‘sidelining’ or ‘marginalizing’ in your own church or organization. There is a saying on the England subways that I have traveled so much in my life: if you SEE IT, SAY IT. Then it will be SORTED. If you see things around you that are wrong, or hear of them from someone, at times you need to call it out. This is the role of a ‘whistleblower’, someone at great cost to themselves who is not willing to be silent but will stand against injustice whether personally or in an organization. You may not be the whistleblower, but you may need to provide support to them.
  4. Do not be an ‘enabler’ of toxic power. I will have more to say in my next post about the danger of being an ‘enabler’. Every person or system that is toxic in their exercise of power has enablers around them, people that will do just about anything to cover things up and not face the very real problems that are going on. People that turn a blind eye when their leader is having an affair, treating employees in an ugly and toxic way, cheating the books financially even in small ways. There are almost always people who knew something was going on, but did or said nothing to protect their own lives and future.
  5. Be aware of our own ‘approval issues’ either from the same leaders we are hearing about, or other powerful ones. Are we attentive to our own need for approval, that may cripple us from doing the things we need to do to bring change in our organization?

So the question continues for me. Have I been faithful to the people that have shared their toxic stories with me? Have I listened well, but then not gone on to do what is required of me?

Have I been blind to my own treatment of people, thinking I am an empathetic listener when actually I am a toxic presence in their life?

What about you?

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