The Power of Listening


This article was co-written by Trey Duckett.

A series of articles on the importance of listening

We think in stories and metaphors, habitually ascribing personal meaning to our experiences. Describing yourself in terms of occupation, relationship status, age, and so forth is not so personal. To share your stories is to risk being known. Telling your stories is an act of openness and generosity. Consider with whom you share your life stories. These are trusted people in our lives, and sometimes we are trusting the relationship structure as much as the individual person, such as the pastor, teacher, or hair stylist.

We are speaking with community members who are often in the position of listening. They have earned trust or demonstrated care that allows others to risk being known.

Jill Kuharic, local stylist and owner of The Beehive, hears vulnerable stories from clients who sit in her chair. Her clients schedule appointments for the beauty services she provides, but they walk away also having received love and care from Jill’s attentive listening. She says that the role of the stylist, “is to make people look good and feel good.” She accomplishes the latter through listening and creating the feeling of being known and loved.

Matt Poorman, lead pastor at Cornerstone Church, meets with people in the aftermath of their struggle. Pastor Matt hears of financial, relational and mental hardship. Recently, he met with members of his congregation who have experienced situations that include housefires, divorces, and deaths of family members. He says, “so many [people] are dealing with the trauma of brokenness.” Within his role as pastor, he meets with people in these moments and listens to their pain.

Kindergarten teacher Mrs. Brooke LaSane, sees yet another aspect of the distress currently in the community. While teaching for over 20 years, Mrs. LaSane has heard countless stories from children who are in challenging situations with family, finances, mental health, and more. These existing challenges were only amplified by the impact the children experienced from the COVID-19 pandemic. Mrs. LaSane says, “since the pandemic, the emotional needs of the kids are much greater.” She spends a lot of her time trying to attend to these needs and meet each of her students where they are at. For Mrs. LaSane, helping her students in the midst of the challenges requires listening to them well.

Jill, Matt and Brooke are just a few of the community members who see and care for those others who struggle. They care by sitting with individuals and just listening to the story being told. Yet, when compassionately listening, one often feels compelled to do more to alleviate some of the pain and burden of the storyteller. Jill, for example, notices “I want to give them something that can help them beyond that day.” It can allow thoughts to drift to questions of what else could have been said or done to help.

Despite this guilt, so often nothing can be said to significantly change a hurting individual’s situation or painful story. Rather, within this desire to do more, the individual bypasses the idea that just listening to the hurting story will help beyond that day and immeasurably more than they might imagine. The power of listening can surprise the listener as they witness the impact they can make just by sitting with someone and their story instead of trying to change it.

“The power of listening can surprise the listener as they witness the impact they can make just by sitting with someone and their story instead of trying to change it.”

To appreciate the power of listening, run two quick thought experiments. Think of a specific, discreet instance when you did not feel heard. Run the experience through your mind like a movie. Witness the story from beginning to end. How did you feel and what did you think about yourself in this experience? What did you think and feel about the other person, or your relationship with them? What did you think and feel about the task at hand?

I recall an experience in art class in the third grade. Struggling with an assignment, I consulted my neighbor for help. The teacher called out my name and told me to stand against the wall with my nose touching the wall. In my 8-year-old way I tried to open a conversation. What did I do so wrong? I am working on my assignment. What does standing against the wall solve? My attempts were met with contempt and, “Nose against the wall, meathead!”

My feelings about self were humiliation, powerlessness, fear and later anger. My feelings toward the teacher were resentment, and probably distrust. And what about the task? I never did overcome the challenge for that assignment. My attempts to solve the problem were thwarted. I gave up on art. Sure, part of the problem was harsh treatment, but the lack of voice, for me, is what stirred the palpable sense of powerlessness.

Now think of an experience when you did feel heard, when your voice mattered. Also in the third grade, another teacher, Mrs. White, took interest in my experience of my younger brother who was born in the spring of my third grade year. She noticed during a class field trip, where my infant brother was present, that I carried him and cared for him with confidence. She inquired about my role as a big brother and I found myself sharing about bathing and changing him, taking him for walks, and burping him. While I did these out of interest without thinking too much about it, as I told her about my role as a big brother, I found myself telling a story of caretaking, love, responsibility, and competence. I felt uncharacteristically confident and capable. My feelings toward my teacher were warm because I felt important enough in her eyes to capture her interest. And my feelings toward the task of big-brothering were love and intimacy. I know I had positive feelings about my infant brother prior to the dialogue with my teacher, but the positive emotion and view of self, view of other, and view of the task became very prominent during this conversation – the only significant conversation I can remember about becoming a big brother.

Listening with curiosity is an act of intimacy that does more than we might appreciate at first. As your own thought experiment likely reveals, it changes our thoughts and feelings about ourselves, others in our lives, and the task of life in front of us.

This article was co-written by Trey Duckett.