Listen with the Heart

Listen with the Heart

Grow your relationships with non-believers by listening with empathy.

Note: This article is excerpted from our resource Train Your Group in Relational Evangelism.

Their small group that night was discussing why God allows pain and suffering. It was a relatively new group, composed primarily of people either new to faith in Christ, or still trying to decide whether to place their trust in him. They were doing a series called The 7 Big Questions, discussing subjects such as the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the reliability of the Bible. The three facilitators, Greg, Jon, and Leslie (Jon’s wife), were just getting to know the participants over the past few weeks. I had been a coach to them as they navigated launching this new group. When I texted them the following morning to see how the group had gone, I received this reply from Greg:

Seemed to go well, but I left very unsettled … tried to figure out what emotion I was feeling … sadness, inadequacy, emotionally drained. I gave up and turned it over to God. I felt the superficiality of the group in some ways as people shared deep pain and it wasn’t adequately acknowledged. Responses were more about discussing the idea, rather than recognizing someone had just described an experience of deep pain and sorrow. If I did it again, I would think long and hard about how to manage it, respond better or more empathetically and provide follow-up resources. I guess it went okay, but it didn’t feel like it when I was done.

Jon had a similar response: “I kind of felt that way also, but when I expressed my thoughts to Leslie, she said she felt it went well. We agreed we talked and understood the ‘why’ behind the question in a ‘head’ way, but didn’t really get into our ‘heart’ enough.”

Greg, Jon, and Leslie are all seasoned facilitators. They know the basic arts of listening and asking questions. Their responses left me curious to explore exactly what they were feeling after their session. What was the unsettledness?

Listening without the Heart

As I was getting ready to write this article on listening, a neighbor came over I hadn’t seen in a while. Patrick was not doing well. He had just found out his best friend Mike’s 25-year-old son had tragically died from a fall―he slipped while taking a selfie and fell 40 feet from a cliff into the river at a nearby state park. Patrick received the call the day before, and was grieving the tremendous loss of his friend’s son. He was sad, having known this young man since he was born, and now he was struggling with what to do to reach out to his best friend. What could he possibly say?

We are so desensitized to suffering, death, and loss in our culture now, that we do not fully know how to empathize with another’s pain. Similar to what Jon and Greg observed in their group experience, I must have responded to Patrick in a similar way, listening with my head to the tragic news, but not with my heart. Finally, Patrick said to me, “How would you feel if this was one of your sons who had died?” He wasn’t trying to be critical; I think he just wanted a more compassionate, heartfelt reply from me. If it had been one of my children who had died, I would be unable to speak with the grief in my heart.

Not knowing what to do or say next, since I know my neighbor is a Christian, I asked him if I could pray with him for his friend’s family. He was appreciative, and we spent some time in prayer. I felt like God softened my heart for my neighbor and his friend in that prayer time. This was a young life cut short by one simple―but tragic―misstep.

Jesus’ Example of True Listening

Recently, Eric Rust, the senior pastor at Cedar Hills Church in Sandpoint, Idaho, preached a sermon series on eight relational practices of Jesus found in the Gospel of Luke. The practices included noticing, praying, listening, asking questions, loving, welcoming, serving together, and sharing. I was disarmed by the passage he chose for listening―Luke 8:40–48.

Imagine the scene as if it were a Hollywood movie. Jesus arrives in town, and is swarmed by a crowd. Jairus, an important community leader, rushes up to Jesus and begs him to come heal his young daughter, who is dying. As Jesus sets out, the people press in on all sides. In this urgent moment, a subplot emerges―a hemorrhaging woman, who has endured over a decade of social isolation due to her illness. She has spent everything she had on painful, ineffective treatments, and now she casts all her faith upon Jesus by simply touching his cloak. She reaches out. Suddenly, Jesus stops and asks, “Who touched me?”

Luke’s Gospel reports Jesus felt power going out of him. He looks around to see who touched him. Mark’s account (5:21–34) says the woman came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told Jesus the whole truth.

Here is the amazing part. Despite the important assignment of Jesus, he stopped and listened to a sick, ostracized woman. His care for her went beyond her physical healing, and he took time to hear her story, to listen to “the whole truth” about her. That was genuine listening.

Eric concluded in his sermon that true listening is much more than hearing words. It is discerning the depth of what is being said, what is being felt, what needs to be communicated. Jesus was a master at this. That’s why he could feel even a simple touch in a crowd of people surrounding him.

Empathetic Listening

A good listener is empathetic—but most of us have a hard time getting outside of our own frame of reference. When people express emotion or pain, often our knee-jerk reaction is to fix them or give them relief. We find it difficult to join them where they are. We feel discomfort, and want to hurry them to a different emotional state.

Empathy offers comfort―not pat answers―and tries to understand, and even experience, the other person’s feelings. It starts with where the person is, and tries to understand rather than change, remembering only God can change a human heart. Karen Kimsey-House, a coaching expert and the creator of the Co-Active® philosophy of relationships, warns:

When you're not listening well, you're not fully present. You miss what's behind the words, the deep truth that's coming from a person. It's not about hearing the words spoken per se; it's about connecting with the heart.

Listening is a process of communication that extends much further than simply hearing. Listening requires us to concentrate, derive meaning from the sound that is heard, and react to it.

In many Muslim cultures, when asking people how they are doing, one asks in Arabic, “How is your haal?” What is this haal they are asking about? It is the transient state of one’s heart. To paraphrase, “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?”

Do we really want to know? Do we have time to hear their answer? In this busy age we live in, do we have time for that conversation, that glance, that touch? Perhaps our words and empathic listening will be a healing conversation, one filled with grace and presence.

Genuine listening requires us to look the person in the eye, convey our interest and attention, hold the look, lean in a little, and say, “How are you?” Then keep quiet. Philosopher Simone Weil said, “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, ‘What are you going through?’” Be genuinely interested in hearing the other person’s story—the truth of what is going on right now. Don’t correct, preach, talk over, or editorialize. Don’t offer your own opinions. Just listen to theirs.

If we will genuinely listen to people this way, they will usually tell us how they really are. They may even tell us things that shock us. People become extraordinarily open when they sense we are really paying attention. Try using a couple of phrases liberally while genuinely listening, such as “Wow!” or “That’s really interesting.” This helps us deal with our own desire to respond in the moment without having to hijack the conversation. Genuine listening opens the possibility of entering into an authentic conversation in which we allow God to control the outcome.

Listening is an important skill in all relationships, and it’s exceptionally important for connecting with seekers and non-believers. When they encounter the sacred gift of empathetic listening, they will share their hearts’ true pain, sorrow, and joy because they feel safe.

—Mary Schaller is president of Q Place, a ministry that equips Christians to lead small groups for spiritual seekers. In 2006, Mary graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary with a Masters in Divinity. She is the author of How to Start a Q Place, and the co-author of The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversations.

More on Welcoming Small Groups

Free Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: Regular access to innovative training resources, Bible-based curriculum, and practical articles.

Related Training Tools

Develop Real Relationships

Develop Real Relationships

Intentionally build the relationships in your group.
Connecting Newcomers

Connecting Newcomers

How to welcome people to your church and your small groups