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Posted: August 27, 2004

Spiritual Caregiving

Lessons from a Boot Camp for Listening

Despite good intentions, talking with people in a crisis can be like walking through a minefield. You can do a lot of good, but a lot of harm as well. So Spirituality & Health magazine turned for advice to Samaritans USA, a nonprofit group with 50 years experience training volunteers for suicide hotline. Their ?boot camp? ? 20 to 40 hours of class work, evaluations, performance reviews, and supervised shifts ? is a model for us all.

The key to helping in a crisis is to ?listen!? says Alan Ross, spokesman for Samaritans USA. ?And you can't be listening if you're doing all the talking, or if your main thought is ?What can I do?' The key to effective listening is to shut up.?

Ross is passionate on the subject. ?Nobody is more dangerous than the open-minded, progressive person who believes he has no biases. The first part of boot camp is to strip you of preconceptions about yourself. You listen to your own internal monologue of values, judgments, and prejudices that jams you as a ?receiving mechanism.' Once you are aware of the obstacles to listening, you can truly hear.?

Why is listening important?

Compassionate (also known as ?nonjudgmental? or ?active?) listening creates connection, care, community and a catharsis for the speaker. And it feels good; studies have shown that really listening lowers blood pressure and leads to increased relaxation for the listener.

How can we help?

When we hear a problem, our natural inclination is to solve it. But when a person is in trouble, what he really needs is to have his emotions acknowledged and his experience validated. Listen for what he feels. In a helping environment, content and information are secondary to feelings.

How can we respond?

  • Paraphrase or restate. Taking in another's thoughts or feelings and offering back their essence lets the other person know you've heard him. Never analyze, anticipate, minimize, contradict, point-score (which has to do with your need to be ?right?), or talk about how you've experienced the same thing. And don't assume you already know. ?If you think you can mind-read, it's probably about you, not the other person,? says Ross . ?And you reduce the other person's thoughts to your frame of reference.? Listening and paraphrasing encourage the speaker to open up.
  • Be empathetic. Empathy is quite different from sympathy, which has the effect of putting someone down. Empathy meets another person on the same level. For example, your friend tells you, ?I was fired today. I'm so angry.? You know he often played hooky, and you respond, ?I'm sorry you got fired,? or worse, ?I'm sorry you feel that way.? These are statements of sympathy ? there's distance and possibly subtle superiority. On the other hand, to say, ?You must be so upset that they fired you,? acknowledges and validates your friend's pain and expresses empathy.
  • Avoid veiled judgments. Many times we don't realize the judgments we're expressing. For example, ?Does that make sense to you?? is a closed-ended question requiring a ?yes? or ?no,? with values attached; if you answer ?yes,? you're right/good/smart. Closed-ended questions can be subtly controlling and manipulative, and they're generally misused. A good use of a closed-ended question would be to confirm somebody's state of mind, such as, ?Are you scared?? ?Do you have enough money for your bills??
    Sometimes even statements we consider positive may negate the feelings of a troubled person. ?There's nothing wrong with being frustrated caring for your mother,? sounds accepting, but it is your opinion and may not be at all helpful to a weary caregiver who believes there's something terribly wrong with not simply accepting their caregiving role. Better to ask open-ended questions about how the person feels, establishing rapport and giving another the opportunity to express himself.
  • Be silent! ?Silence is meant to be shared, not filled,? say The Samaritans. ?Do not be afraid to use silence when you are unsure of what to say or how to respond, or to allow a pause or some quiet space.?

With more than 31,000 volunteers in 357 centers in 41 countries, The Samaritans offer free, confidential help to anyone who needs it. To learn more, go to or

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2004 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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