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Spring 1992 · Vol. 21 No. 1 · pp. 64–72 

The Art of Listening to Hurting People

Marie Riediger

This essay is not a theoretical treatise on communication. It is an article that has been shaped and reshaped through my own personal experience, and through a study of the rewarding ministry of active listening—listening to people who are dying, listening to people who are grieving, and listening to others who have come through various types of tragedies.

To love is to listen.

When I resigned from my job as a nursing instructor in 1985, I had no idea that my whole life would change drastically and that it would take on a new dimension. God called me into a new type of ministry, that of training to be a certified lay chaplain. As I worked and studied during the two year C.P.E. (Canadian Pastoral Education) Program, all my energy began to be focused on learning to listen so that I would hear the real message that was often hidden behind the words people would use as they struggled to come to grips with a diagnosis, or with a word like “cancer,” or with dying, or the loss of body parts, or people. I seemed to be there for only one purpose: to learn to listen and hear the cry of pain and anguish behind the words that were spoken.

In my nursing career, words were {65} used to describe “doing” things. Now I heard, over and over again, “It is not what you do but who you are that counts.” The meaning of this statement was brought into clear focus for me one day when I walked into a Coronary Care Unit to visit a woman who had had a massive heart attack. Before going to see her, I had been down on my knees praying on her behalf. As I came to her bedside now, her first words totally stunned me. “When you entered the Intensive Care Unit, I knew there was hope. You didn’t say a word, but you were here and I knew I would make it.” Without my uttering a single word she could sense that I cared. Chuck Swindoll has it right: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

What do “listening,” “loving,” “caring”—words one often hears—really mean? Earl Wilson (1989:11-12) says, “Caring is a lost treasure.” “Caring is a skill that flows out of love.” We in the Hospice Movement say, “To love is to listen.” Kay Quick, who wrote the foreword to Wilson’s book, Loving Enough to Care sums it up well: “True caring asks for a commitment to love and serve at times and in ways that are not always easy or convenient. It is listening and observing the person long enough to determine his or her needs and how he or she can best hear and receive caring from us” (Wilson, 1989:9). If we listen long enough, people will finally be able to hear themselves and then hear us when we have earned the right to speak. This paper explores how we can listen so that we will hear the real message.


First, listening is not taking responsibility for other people’s lives while they are experiencing life-threatening situations. Dying people (especially spouses) lose their sense of identity when all responsibility is taken away from them. The dying person needs to feel he or she still belongs. Moreover, the dying person needs to feel a semblance of control over his or her life as long as possible, regardless of how limited that control may finally become. We, as listeners, come alongside and accompany the dying person on their journey.

Secondly, listening is not giving advice when advice is not asked for. The question, “Why?” is not a cry for us to give answers. Rather, it is a deep, spiritual cry of pain and protest to {66} that which they cannot understand because they feel that their lives are out of control. They do not really want an answer; they want someone to hear their cry, someone who will not condemn them for asking, “Why?”, but will stay with them in their struggle.

Thirdly, listening is not doing the problem-solving for them. The journey through pain and suffering means going through a deep valley where despair and bitterness are brewed or where soul-making occurs. This journey takes time. It is a process and we need to allow that process to take place. An example will illustrate.

I was called to visit a woman with an inoperable spinal tumor. With many tears, she told me her painful story. When she finished she said, “I did not call you to bring me in contact with the church. I grew up in a Roman Catholic church, but I left it as a teenager, and have never gone to church since. Now I have nowhere to go.”

As I listened, I heard her deep spiritual cry, and responded, “Do I hear you saying that you called me to help you find a relationship with God, instead of with a church?”

“Yes! Yes! That is what I want.”

With that I was able to lead her into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

A butterfly coming out of its cocoon presents another illustration of what not to do. The struggle to break open the cocoon prepares the butterfly to develop wings that will be strong enough to fly. If we assist in opening the cocoon, the butterfly’s wings will be too weak to fly, and it will die. The same is true in the life of a hurting person. The struggle is a part of their “growing” and “becoming.” Growth and inner healing will take place when we come alongside, supporting and accompanying the person on his or her painful journey.

David Augsburger relates the remark of a cancer patient: “Those who cared were those who listened and who really heard me without trying to explain or advise or catalogue their own illnesses” (1982:48).


Henri Nouwen explains, “Listening is a very active and extremely alert form of caring” (“Care,” 5). Lloyd Dahl, a supervisor in C.P.E., put it this way, “Listening is tuning in to {67} another person even when he or she cannot verbalize.” This type of listening is neither critical nor judgmental; instead, it accepts people as they are—reckless, ill-tempered, joyful, or pensive—and it explores these feelings with them. When counselors really listen, healing of emotional pain can take place. I experience this almost daily in my work. Henri Nouwen (1986:97) puts this into words that I often use in my teaching. “Healing is the humble, but, also, very demanding task of creating and offering a friendly, empty space where strangers can reflect on their pain and suffering, without fear, and find the confidence that makes them look for new ways right in the centre of their confusion.”

In order to achieve such listening, we need to do what I call “three-way listening.” While studying in the Chaplaincy Program, I felt I needed a role model and I began to search for one. The male supervisors were good listeners, but that did not satisfy me. I searched for a female role model, but that too was futile, as I could not find one in my denomination. It was then that I finally set my eyes on Jesus and found that He was the “Great Listener” for whom I had been searching. Thus began an exciting study for me, one which continues to be an ongoing pursuit. Two books that have been very helpful are: The Counselling of Jesus by Duncan Buchanan, and Listening to the God Who Speaks by Klaus Bockmuehl.


In the art of three-way listening I discovered, first of all, that Jesus needed to listen to God. Jesus had an “Abba Father” relationship with God; a relationship so intimate, so secure, that Jesus could move with confidence, feeling totally competent to do His Father’s will. Added to the confidence, security, and intimacy of the relationship was an element of deep and total obedience. Duncan Buchanan (1985:17) says: “At the heart of His ministry is a deep relationship: one so strong that it can withstand the pressures and onslaughts of sin and Satan and sustain Him to the end.” Jesus spent much time alone with his Father, and so must I. I have learned, before I go on any visit, to claim his word in James 1:5, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” Klaus Bockmuehl (1990:61) says, “As Christ’s disciples, we are given the {68} privilege of divine instruction. This privilege includes the invitation to listen with the same attitude of listening we perceive in Jesus.”

Secondly, I need to learn to listen to “self” as the Bible teaches it. How aware am I of my position in Christ? Roger Hurding has some beautiful diagrams in his book, Restoring the Image. He states, “The presence of God’s love in our lives will encourage both the acceptance of the people we are, as made by God and redeemed through Christ, and the rejection of all that is unworthy of God’s calling” (1980:9). This gives me a strong sense of identity as well as an awareness of my own limitations and my weaknesses. If I am not in touch with my own pain and weaknesses, and have not dealt with them, they will come between me and the hurting person. Instead of hearing the person, I will hear my own pain and have a compulsive urge to talk about it. If I have taken care of my relationship to God and my relationship to self, I can then move effectively into the third aspect of listening—listening to hurting people.

Few people take the time and effort needed in listening to hurting people. Why is this so difficult to do? Colin Johnstone, a C.P.E. supervisor at the Cancer Control Agency, outlined the difficulties as follows:

  • Our society has a model of being verbal. There is no shortage of seminars on communication, but seldom is there one on active listening.
  • Our society is so noisy that we tune people out. We cannot tolerate the noise, and, therefore, have a problem with tuning in with listening skills.
  • If we listen till we hear, it will cause us pain and we do not want to feel that pain. This is by far the greatest difficulty.

Often, hurting persons cannot hear themselves. If we, the listener, really hear them, we may hear what they have not heard in themselves, and by reflecting back on what we’ve heard, they may begin to hear themselves.

There are two levels of listening that can be illustrated in the following diagram. {69}

I entered the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit one day, and in reply to my question, “How are things going for you today?” the lady responded, “I am not so afraid any more.” I reflected, “Afraid?” With that, she started to cry and said, “I am so afraid I will die and I have no religion. . .” We were then able to deal with the real issues. When we respond to the feelings behind the words, the hurting people know we have heard what they are trying to communicate but were unable to verbalize themselves. This opens the door for them to deal with their deep pain.


In active listening, hurting individuals are able to make use of the listener. The listener acts as a reflecting mirror. This enables the person to identify his or her feelings; persons gain insight into their problem and then can start problem-solving. I find the following model, developed by Colin Johnstone, very helpful.

Ventilation. This is the emotional component. All their pent up feelings need to be expressed and listened to. Hurting people cannot hear the listener until the latter has heard all their pain. The question, “Why?” needs to be expressed in various ways, over and over again. Persons in pain know you do not have the answer but they need to have you hear the pain and accept it. Amy Harwell (1987:5 5), in her book, When Your Friend Gets Cancer, puts it this way: “It’s a shame you can’t just talk to the wall and get rid of the ‘toxic energy,’ but there has to be a receiver. You have to talk out your horrible feelings. Somebody has to receive them. The right therapist or the right friend is vital.”

Differentiation. When the “whys” have finally ceased, hurting individuals can move to the second stage—“What does it mean?” There must be some meaning to this tragedy {70}; they can now begin to search for it. We as listeners come alongside, and accompany them in their search and wonder with them. Allowing them to grapple with the meaning makes it a very personal search. They can then make their own decisions. We should not try to give the answer.

Integration. It is common for people to move in and out of stages one and two (ventilation and differentiation) for a while. Eventually the third question emerges—“Now that this has happened to me, what do I do with it?” They can now face the issue and start making decisions. An example: the person has received news that the cancer is inoperable and death will follow in a matter of weeks or months, or, maybe in a year or two. With love, compassion and acceptance, the listener comes alongside this person to hear the feelings, help grapple with the meaning and then support that person in the painful decisions he or she has to make. By now the listener has earned the right to speak and occasionally may use storytelling or some personal experience as an example as to what was most helpful in a similar circumstance. Sometimes, some teaching may be helpful as well. If this approach is used, the last weeks and months may become the most fulfilling part of the hurting person’s life. In the midst of their pain and suffering, life has taken on new meaning.


  • Sometimes the journey through suffering leads to deep discouragement because the person feels no progress has been made. It may then be very helpful to allow the individual to reflect in order to gain an insight as to what has already happened. This review allows the person to recognize the progress that has been made. The person can come to the realization that even though the body is not healed, the inner person has become whole.
  • A question often asked by a listener is, “Where and when do I use my own story or self-disclosure?” My answer to this question is, “Use your story to clarify a problem.” The listener’s own personal examples should be short and used only for clarification. Return to the other person’s story as soon as possible.
  • Only certain questions are helpful. Use questions sparingly: only to help clarify thinking. If you use a lot of {71} questions, look at your own fears. They are most likely lurking in the background. The use of open-ended questions promotes searching. “What?” and “How?” are good openers. Reflective questions, such as, “What do you think?” invite probing and clarification. “Why?” questions are a no, no! They give the impression of being judgmental and put the person on the defensive.
  • It is important to leave your personal agenda at home. When preparing for the visit listen to God and check out your own emotions and frame of mind. Having done that, go to the visit with an open mind. I like to go as a student, for this posture helps me to keep an open attitude.
  • The listener may begin and end the visit, but the hurting person takes the lead as to what they want to talk about. A listener is not the “counselor”; a listener is a “friend along the way.” An effective listener moves where the energy is.
  • We in the church often think that evangelization is the purpose of our visit. We think we must read or quote a Bible verse. Often we close our own doors because we forget that deep caring for that person is what is needed most when the hurt is so deep. Bible reading and prayer will fall into place when the person can hear us. Most often the greatest need is our presence.

It is important to remember that the hurting person may have no spiritual language. We need to be there to help such persons put their spiritual search into words which they can understand. If we use Scripture, it needs to be appropriate to the situation. If prayer takes place, ask what they want included in the prayer. I find that if I have listened well, trust has been built, and near the end of the visit, the individual often finds the courage to verbalize the real problem that has been kept secret because of deep fear. We as listeners need to allow that door of trust to open, and to provide the space where others can enter and disclose their fears.

  • As listeners we have a trust to keep. The ‘hurting person has privileged us to look deep into his or her life; that is a sacred privilege. We dare not break that trust.
  • Finally, we as listeners need to remember that when we go, God goes with us. He is already there when we arrive. When we leave, he stays and he often works more in our absence than in our presence. In the ministry of listening {72}, the Holy Spirit takes all that we say and do, and all that the person feels and thinks, and allows the person to change gears slowly and often so imperceptibly that the individual is not even aware of it. You and I do not take the credit. We listen in Christ’s name and only sometimes are we allowed to see the change and give thanks.


  • Augsburger, David. Caring Enough to Hear and Be Heard. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1982.
  • Bockmuehl, Klaus. Listening to the God Who Speaks. Helmers and Howard, 1990.
  • Buchanan, Duncan. The Counselling of Jesus. Inter-Varsity Press, 1985.
  • Harwell, Amy. When Your Friend Gets Cancer. Harold Shaw Pub., 1987.
  • Hurding, Roger F. Restoring the Image. Attic Press Inc., 1980.
  • Nouwen, Henri. Reaching Out. Image Books, 1986.
  • Nouwen, Henri. Article on “Care of the Elderly.” (Publishing data not available.)
  • Wilson, Earl D. Loving Enough to Care. Multnomah Press, 1989.

Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.

Marie Riediger is Bereavement Coordinator of the Abbotsford-Matsqui Hospice Society, Abbotsford, British Columbia.

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