Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Skill Every Hospice Chaplain Must Master

If I could teach one skill to new Chaplains it would be the skill of listening.  Many Chaplains come into hospice from the pastorate where they do most of the talking. Hospice is just the opposite.  Chaplains must be skilled listeners.  May we learn from these two Masters of life skills: Stephen Covey and Carl Rogers.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply,” (Stephen Covey).  Isn’t that the truth?  The hospice Chaplain listens for the soul’s deep meaning and not to engage in a debate about death, religious beliefs, or some other subject of interest to the Chaplain.  The patient has the stage or the caregiver has the stage.  The Chaplain listens with the intent to understand.

Carl Rogers gives us instruction through these statements on empathetic listening:  “We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening of this very special kind is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.”  In Experiences in Communication, Rogers goes on to say “I hear the words, the thoughts, the feeling tones, the personal meaning, even the meaning that is below the conscious intent of the speaker. Sometimes too, in a message which superficially is not very important, I hear a deep human cry that lies buried and unknown far below the surface of the person. So I have learned to ask myself, can I hear the sounds and sense the shape of this other person's inner world? Can I resonate to what he is saying so deeply that I sense the meanings he is afraid of, yet would like to communicate, as well as those he knows?”  Are those not questions we need ask ourselves as Chaplains?

There is much to be said about empathetic listening.  Let’s start with the basics: Empathetic listening helps people feel heard and not alone.  What is the cry of the heart that is fearful, anxious, distracted?  Is it not for someone to listen with interest? with concern? with compassion?  Secondly, empathetic listening involves many skills and components: relaxed yet engaged body posture; eye contact (when culturally appropriate), reassuring touch (when culturally appropriate), listening beyond or beneath the literal words said by a person to the deeper emotions, meaning, and needs. What may seem contradictory, empathetic listening may also ask you to laugh, be joyous, and not focus on illness, pain, or dying.  After all, it is the patient or caregiver we are listening to.  They are our focus.  And the results?  In this day of outcomes oriented chaplaincy we need to be clear on the benefits of empathetic listening: Fear, anxiety, despair, and even physical pain frequently diminish when the person feels heard, understood, and accepted.  Personhood, self-worth, and dignity are affirmed. Feelings of isolation decrease.  Persons find their own answers in the new milieu of affirmation.

Chaplain Friend, learn this skill and all the others will come naturally.

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