Session 5: Listening

Session 5: Listening

In this session we will explore the task of listening and what can sometimes stop us from doing so.

Opening reflection

Listen to ‘Let’s call the whole thing off’ (use YouTube or download here).

A prayer to say together:

Creative God,

you have made us all different.

Thank you for the wide variety in human personality and character.

We’re sorry that sometimes our differences create tensions between us

and make it hard for us to listen to each other.

Grant us attentiveness to really listen to those we care for

that we may respond to their needs in the way they want;

and courage to go on listening when what they’re saying is painful to hear

that they may feel stronger because we’re sharing some of their pain.

In the name of your Son, Jesus.



Each person should take about a minute to give their name and say what kind of music, if any, they enjoy listening to.


Ken Wilber shared with his wife Treya her journey through cancer to death. In his book Grace and Grit he shares his own reflections on that time and on his wider experience as a psychologist and cancer sufferer himself. Into the book are incorporated extracts from Treya’s diary.


Most people who are ill are undergoing a great deal of stress dealing with it. Their needs should be respected, the limits they suggest should at least be considered. Not that I don’t believe in healthy confrontation at the right moment, for I certainly do. What I object to is people theorising about me and not bothering to ask me what my thoughts on myself and this illness are. I have had cancer. I feel bad enough about this, about the threat to my life, about the surgery and treatments I have had to undergo. It has been frightening. I have been unkind to myself (by asking myself what I might have done to bring this on myself). I do not need you to be unkind to me too. I need you to understand, to be gentle, not to theorise about me behind my back. I need you to ask me, not to tell me. I need you to try to understand what this must feel like, just a little, to put yourself in my place and hopefully treat me more kindly than I sometimes treat myself.


Over the years I’ve talked to a lot of people who have cancer, many who have recently been diagnosed. At first I wasn’t sure what to say. It was easiest to talk about my own experiences as a cancer patient, but I soon saw that often that was not what a particular person needed to hear. The only way I could discover how to help someone was by listening. Only when I heard what they were trying to say could I get a sense of what they needed, of the issues they were confronting at that time, of the kind of help that would really help at that specific moment. Since people go through many different phases during the course of an illness that can be as persistent and unpredictable as cancer, learning to listen to what they need is especially important.

Some possibilities for discussion:

  • Is there anything in this account that rings bells with you?

  • Treya asks for allowance to be made for the fact that she’s suffering. In what ways, if at all, would you treat someone differently because of what they are going through?

  • Treya asks that others put themselves in her place. Share experiences of trying to put yourself in the shoes of the person you are caring for.

  • Treya asks to be consulted about what concerns her. When might carers be tempted not to do that? What’s it like when such consultation isn’t possible?


Listening to pain:

Someone reads from John 19:25b-27

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.


Either listen to the author read his reflection here or ask a group member to read it out.

Really being alongside someone in their pain is an enormous challenge. Barbara Want in her book about the early death of her husband Nick Clarke describes angrily how people she met in the weeks following his death simply wouldn’t mention the subject. And if she did, they changed the topic as quickly as they could. People simply didn’t want to hear her pain. We may well have had similar experiences. I’ve often sensed as I’ve responded truthfully to the question ‘How’s your wife’ that the point of the question was to show a superficial concern, not really to hear about and so share some of the pain.

The incident we’ve just read about offers a different model. Unlike the disciples who, with the exception of John, were nowhere to be seen, Jesus’ mother and two other women stayed to be with him for his final hours. The words of the thirteenth-century poem about this, ‘Stabat Mater’, suggests that this moment fulfilled the prophecy of Simeon at Jesus’ birth that a sword would pierce Mary’s heart:

Through her heart, his sorrow sharing,

all his bitter anguish bearing,

now at length the sword has passed.

The metaphor of a sword passing through us is not a bad one to describe the experience of being alongside those we care for. Their physical or mental pain, their frustration or physical restrictions, can make watching them struggle or suffer agonising. There may be occasions when the agony is too much for us. Then we need to do the equivalent of the disciples who fled. If we can’t bear it, we need to learn to protect ourselves if we are going to be able to continue our practical caring.

Much of the time, though, we will want to listen, hard though it is. It’s particularly difficult when the one we care for isn’t capable of straightforward verbal communication. Having to rely on picking up signals, on body language or on plain guesswork is especially hard. But even when we want to listen and there is communication, there are times when we’re not fully responsive to the pain being expressed.

Sometimes we may offer over-hasty reassurance. There’s a difficult balance to be struck here. When those we care for are feeling low, they are sometimes incapable of keeping that distance from their situation that would enable them to see where there are positive signs. With that little extra detachment of the carer, we can sometimes point these out. Unrealistic encouragement cuts no ice but specific, even quite small, possibilities, can be reassuring. But coming in with these too soon can be a way of defending ourselves against the pain of hearing about feelings of despondency and despair. These are often all too real and it can be helpful for the person experiencing them to express them, however hard it may be for us to listen. Experience can give us the ability to know at what point to intervene with a more positive outlook but what’s important is that that timing is not chosen to save us pain but for what we see as most beneficial for the person we care for.

Of course, the majority of those we care for will be well aware that it is hard to listen to someone describing their struggles. Sometimes this means that they won’t talk about it. They button their lips and keep it to themselves. What’s more, because of our different personalities, we may not realise how much talking the person we’re caring for needs to do. They might need to share what they’re feeling more than we would; they may be more likely than we would be to feel they’re boring us when they do. Because we wouldn’t need to talk as much, we may not realise that the one we care for is holding back and needs encouragement to talk.

It may of course be the other way round – we need to talk more than the one we’re caring for. If so, we may not understand why they don’t talk more and so try to push them to do so inappropriately. Or we may be tempted to use them as listeners to us more than is appropriate. The material in the learning section of this session is designed to help us be more aware of these and similar temperamental differences.

If we’re a different gender from the one we care for, that can also lead to differences that may make listening difficult. To summarise a huge topic, women often communicate on an emotional level of relationship and connection, on feelings first, rather than fact. Men on the other hand tend to assess the status of an issue and look for a solution by reasoning. Here, as with temperamental differences, it’s easy to stop listening because the topic isn’t being approached in the way we would approach it.

What Mary stood there and listened to as Jesus expressed his pain on the cross must have been very difficult to hear. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ But there were also words of love as Jesus invited his mother and his best friend to care for each other after his death. Among the things the people we care for say that are hard to hear, there will also, if we are fortunate, be words of encouragement for us, words of gratitude and appreciation. Don’t let’s miss those. When they come, let’s resist any temptation to brush them off and make sure we that we really hear them.

Some possibilities for discussion:

  • What’s hard about being alongside pain?

  • Of the things the person you care for expresses, which are hard to hear and respond to?

  • What do you do if you can’t listen any longer?

  • If the one you care for is able to communicate effectively, how helpful to them do you think it is to talk about what they’re going through? Do they need encouraging to do this?


Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers developed a test based on Carl Jung’s ideas about personality types. This is important because one of the difficulties in really listening to someone else is that they will probably have a different personality type to you and so have needs you might not recognise because you haven’t got them.

To make best use of this Myers-Briggs theory, there’s no substitute for taking the test with a properly qualified practitioner but, even without that, it’s possible to identify the personality types that fit most closely with you and those with the person you care for. We are all a mixture of the different types and therefore shouldn’t overly label ourselves or others but it’s worth being aware of some of the types Myers-Briggs identify. The following is my own chart and shouldn’t be taken as more than a very simplistic summary of the theory. But to give an example, this book’s author is (based on this chart rather than the official test) ESFP i.e. he’s more of an Extravert than an Introvert (though he doesn’t like too much external stimulation), more Sensing than iNtuitive (that word isn’t used here entirely according to its normal usage), more Feeling than Thinking and more Perceiving than Judging (though he does like to be in control).


Possible Irritants

Introvert – looks inwards, reflective, one thing at a time, needs time to think, seeks escape from constant external stimulation.

Extravert – looks outwards, active, speaks to find out what they think, likes external stimulation.

  • E may want much more conversation and background TV/Radio.
  • I may not realise E is only trying out an idea; it’s not the final word on the subject.

Sensing – very conscious of environment, capacity to enjoy life as it is, likes instructions to be exact and follows them.

iNtuition – environment less important, likely to have clear idea how things might be better, capable of apparently illogical jumps.

  • N more content with untidiness.
  • S unhappy with N’s desire to be always changing things.
  • S can’t see how N reached a particular decision.

Thinking – choices based on logical criteria, truth more important than tact, looks at issues from outside, decisions either true or false.

Feeling – choices perfectly rational but based on personal/social, needs more than logic, decisions either good or bad.

  • F thinks T is too critical.
  • T thinks F is being illogical.
  • F thinks T is too detached.

Perceiving – likes open-endedness, tolerant, experience-orientated.

Judging – likes structure, anxious in uncertainty, likes to be in control

  • P doesn’t keep to J’s timetable
  • J wants to hurry P into making a decision

Some possibilities for discussion:

  • Share any of the findings of those who’ve had time to research this theory or who have experienced the Myers-Briggs test previously.

  • Share with each other which of the two types in each row of the first two columns you feel most describes you and which most describes the person you care for.

  • Do any of the suggested ‘irritants’ apply to the relationship? Are there others?

Preparing for the next session

In the next session, we shall be talking about Keat’s theory of Negative Capability. More information can be found by googling ‘Negative Capability’ or following this link.


Now is the time for anyone in the group to mention anything going on in their lives that they are finding difficult. When there has been time for everyone who wishes to speak, a silence follows, during which each quietly prays for the members of the group who have just spoken. Anyone who wishes to say a prayer out loud can also do so.

Leader: ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not

fear’ (Psalm 46:1-2).

Generous God,

as we pray for each other, you meet us in our need.

Grant us the resources we need for our caring

and surround us with your love.


God says: ‘As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you’ (Isaiah 66:13).

Now go round the group in turn and each person mention the name of someone they are caring for. Follow each mention by a long enough silence for that person to be prayed for silently by the group before the next person speaks. Then all pray together:

Loving God,

you promise to sustain all whose lives are hard.

Grant those for whom we care your strength and your peace.


May God bless us all till we meet again.


To take away

The doctor bent over the lifeless figure in the bed. Then he straightened up and said, ‘I’m sorry to say that your husband is no more, my dear’. A feeble sound of protest came from the lifeless figure in the bed: ‘No, I’m still alive’. ‘Hold your tongue,’ said the woman. ‘The doctor knows better than you’.

Anthony de Mello, The Heart of the Enlightened, Fount Paperbacks, London, 1989.