The key element to productive, healthy interpersonal relationships is communication. Communication encompasses both listening and speaking. Someone wisely said, “God gave us two ears and one mouth.”
Learning to listen is one of the greatest challenges we will face in our work as Clinical Chaplains. Learning what to say is a close second. This chapter is designed to be interactive, as well as, informative.
Let’s tackle listening first. Through my days in CPE I was taught much about listening… active listening and interactive listening. Distinguishing between them was not particularly difficult. What was difficult was clearing my mind so I could hear what was being said.
What are some barriers to listening? Michael Webb presents “Eight Barriers to Effective Listening”. We will look at five of these barriers:
- Knowing the Answer--"Knowing the answer" means that you think you already know what the speaker wants to say, before she actually finishes saying it. You might then impatiently cut her off or try to complete the sentence for her. Can you imagine the reaction of a spouse suffering with anticipatory grief who has longed to unpack painful feelings only to be cut off? Pastoral care will suffer greatly.
- Trying to be Helpful--Although trying to be helpful may seem beneficial, it interferes with listening because the listener is thinking about how to solve what he perceives to be the speaker's problem. Consequently, he misses what the speaker is actually saying. One of the primary purposes of active listening is to discern the “question behind the question” or the “pain behind the statement”. A Chaplain cannot discern anything if he/she is trying to come up with a solution to a perceived problem.
- Treating discussion as competition—Have you been in a conversation (apart from your work) and spoke about a time of illness or surgery? You were trying to make a point, but the other person interrupted and shared their story. It appeared they were playing a game of ‘one-upmanship’. You said one thing and they were going to see your story and up the ante by telling you theirs. The point you were trying to make got totally lost. You were left wondering why you even brought it up. We are not in competition with our patients. Hospice Chaplaincy is about the patient and family, not about us. We go in to the patient with a blank slate and let them fill it in.
- Trying to influence or impress--Because good listening depends on listening to understand, any ulterior motive will diminish the effectiveness of the listener. Examples of ulterior motives are trying to impress or to influence the speaker. A Chaplain who has an agenda other than simply to understand what the patient is thinking and feeling will not be able to pay complete attention while listening. Since one of the goals a Chaplain has in a pastoral encounter is to be ‘present’ with the patient, letting the mind wander trying to come up with a cogent come-back destroys the essence of listening.
- Reacting to ‘red flag’ words—One of the key differences between a Chaplain and a parish Pastor should be/needs to be found at this point. We, as Chaplains, are not the keepers of the faith. We are not called to correct, but to support. When a Wiccan speaks of “Sunnyland”, we don’t react. When a Buddhist says, “We do not believe that this world is created and ruled by a God," we don’t’ react. When a Muslim expounds the Five Pillars, we don’t react. When a Catholic or Presbyterian or Methodist or Baptist or Episcopalian patient shares their view of the after-life and it differs with your beliefs, the Chaplain does not react. The Clinical Chaplain recognizes that the journey of the patient is his or her own journey. The patient’s belief system is just that… the patient’s belief system. Our agenda is simple… to serve the patient. The Clinical Chaplain does not suffer from religious counter-transference which fills the pastoral encounter with the Chaplain’s own anxiety.
How does a Chaplain keep from stumbling over the barriers to effective communication? In short, the Clinical Chaplain is self-aware. If the Chaplain struggles with ego issues, he/she might fall prey to “trying to influence or impress”. If the Chaplain struggles with insecurity, he/she might fall prey to “reacting to red flag words”. If the Chaplain struggles with a competitive personality, he/she might fall prey to “treating discussion as competition.” Getting oneself out of the way so that listening becomes a reality is every Clinical Chaplain’s challenge. I was taught an analogy in CPE called “The Window.” This lesson provided a simple means to evaluate myself and where I was emotionally. I used this simple tool prior to the work day and, in some cases, prior to spiritual care visits. I hope you find it useful, too.