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.

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