When Not to Listen

When Not to Listen

As some of you may know, I have been doing (what I call) Lay Counseling since I was in high school. Friends would come to me with problems and concerns and ask for my feedback.  I learned at an early age not to “give advice” but to help them to think through the issue differently and more objectively.

In my mid-twenties, when I began working with the Christian Brotherhood Fellowship as a teacher, I began to have people flock to me for help over a broad range of topics, though mostly involving personal relationships, theology, and philosophy. I found that there were certain folks who were “repeat customers” (I never charged, by the way!) who seemed to be stuck in the same rut. After working with hundreds of people, I noticed a definite pattern. There were those people who really wanted to move in a different direction in their lives and were open to making (sometimes big) changes in their lives; but there were others who either 1) simply wanted to have a listening ear so they could vent and complain, or 2) wanted to vent with a hidden goal of bad mouthing others and disparaging their reputation.

I learned a phrase from someone ( I honestly do not remember from whom and would give credit if I did) that has stuck with me ever since. When someone is sharing intimate problems, I would ask myself the question, “Am I part of the problem or part of the solution” in this matter?

If I deemed that they honestly wanted feedback and were open to change, then I was part of a (possible) solution… and I would continue to speak with them. If I deemed that the person simply wanted to vent or bad mouth, I would gently but firmly end the conversation – because I was not a part of the solution.

In my professional practice today, I still do this. This is why, very early on in a conversation when someone is painting a picture of a tough situation, I simply interrupt them and ask, “Is there something you were wanting from me?” If I am not a part of the problem or solution, though I might have compassion for them as humans in tough spots, I gently direct them elsewhere or end the conversation. I always end the conversation with an open invitation…if there is something I can do to help or if they are willing to make some changes, my door is always open.

I encourage you all to be of service to your fellow humans. I also caution you against wasting time with those who are not in a place to receive help. Give to those where it makes a difference. It is hard at first… it feels mean, uncaring, and cold; but I assure you that when you learn to distinguish which type of person you are dealing with, it leaves you more time to be truly helpful to those who need – and want it.

Jim Shaul

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