I work as a chaplain in an NHS acute care setting. Recently a colleague from another profession complimented us as a chaplaincy group by saying: ‘You always know what to say to people and what to tell them’. Although grateful for the positive feedback we all responded in unison; ‘No. Our job is not to tell people what to do but to listen to them’.
As chaplains we probably take our role as listeners for granted. After all it is central to what all people centred professionals do? Yet arguably, in chaplaincy, active listening is the most important skill we possess and the greatest gift we can offer to those we encounter in our role. We are not counsellors or therapists (although many of us may have those qualifications) but we are, our should be, skilled in active listening.
‘Active listening is a communication skill that involves hearing, evaluating and responding to what is heard’. (Hargie et al. 1994)
When we listen, we are not passive, we are entering into the mindset and heart set of someone else. We are hearing a range of emotions from grief or sadness to anger and frustration. We are meeting people in the place where they find themselves. We are acknowledging their emotions and accepting their stories. We are letting them know that they are understood. Sometimes our active listening can lead to visible growth and discernment in the other person but just as often the benefits are not discernible, but what matters is that we have been fully present for the other person. Growth, if at all will happen in their time and not in ours.
‘People start to heal the moment they feel heard’ (Cheryl Richardson Sanvello)
We know from our own experience that when we are listened to our wellbeing is enhanced, we feel empowered and believe that we have choices. This is borne out by a recent piece of research carried out by the University of Leeds on the importance of listening in NHS hospitals which showed that current care models do not allow enough time or recognition for listening encounters with patients. The outcome of research showed that; ‘The transformational power attributed to listening encounters was unanimous within all participants and groups’ (Active Listening by Hospital Chaplaincy Volunteers. A Manzano. 2015) The benefits of active listening can of course be applied to all chaplaincy setting and chaplaincy encounters.
As religious chaplains, there is a distinctive dimension to our listening role.
‘For when two or three come together in my name, there am I with them’ (Matthew 18:20) Regardless of whether we are in a religious encounter in our chaplaincy role, we are conduits for God’s presence. This is what roots us as chaplains. It is also what sustains us and reminds us that we too need to listen for the ‘still small voice’ (1 Kings 19:12) it is very important that we are aware of our reactions to what we hear in our chaplaincy encounters, that we are supported through colleagues and supervision and our spiritual lives. In order to be able to hear others we too need to be heard.
Mary Hanna. Chaplain in Acute NHS Care and CWC Trustee.