2/8/2023 0 Comments
Listening’s Role in Intercultural Settings – The Empathetic Act of Listening Gives Voice to Marginalized People Groups
Missions & Intercultural Studies Interest Group
Joey R. Peyton, PhD
Independent Pentecostal Scholar
Presented at the 52nd Annual Meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies
At the foundation of all pastoral care and counseling is the art and act of active empathetic listening. In Western Society, active empathetic listening is increasingly rare in our fast-paced, narcissistic, and individualistic culture. After defining and establishing active empathetic listening as a foundational tool in the ministry of the church, this paper will bring to the forefront the important role of active empathetic listening in intercultural settings, the benefits upon the holistic outcomes (care, counseling, relationships, ministries, etc.), and the potentially unfortunate outcomes when listening is circumvented, assumptions are made, and cultural stereotypes are applied. Ultimately, this paper will make suggestions for improving active empathetic listening in intercultural settings.
ACTIVE EMPATHETIC LISTENING (AEL)
Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because Christians are talking when they should be listening. He [or she] who no longer listens to his [or her] brother [or sister] will soon no longer be listening to God either. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and never really be speaking to others, albeit he [or she] be not conscious of it.
Definitions of simple listening vary greatly among researchers; however, definitions tend to include elements of cognitional (ability), behavioral (willingness), and relational (understanding) processes. One must be able physically and mentally to listen, be willing to take the time and make the effort, and have the capacity to understand both what is said in word and behavior. It is important to note that what we are talking about here is more than just simple listening. Rather, in cases of ministering to voiceless people groups, definitions of the adjectives active and empathetic, must join with the above mechanical and cognitive processes of simple listening.
Active listening enhances the relational process described in simple listening, where the listener does more than just hear what is being said. Active listening also includes considering the emotional and the relational aspects of the speaker when responding. During this process, the active listener “reflects back her or his ‘impression of the expression of the sender’ by paraphrasing or interpreting what the talker is communicating.” Interpersonal connections made while actively listening assist caregivers to discover commonalities, further develop interpersonal connections, and postulate potential outcomes.
Empathetic listening then becomes the “cornerstone of building strong interpersonal relationships by understanding and respecting the other(s) involved. One must not only know how to listen to others’ experiences, ideas, and thoughts, but also suspend their own judgments, prejudices, or preoccupations of themselves in the process.” When listening, “Active Empathetic Listening is an active and emotional process that involves both parties – the speaker and the listener – in the course of their interactions with sharing information.” Active empathetic listening invites speakers “to expand on their feelings or experience” without the listener pursuing their own primary interests, even though it creates “feelings too painful to trust to words” and is shown in body language, voice tones, and/or the silences between words.
THE ROLE OF AEL
“When I told my story you responded, train me well in your deep wisdom. Help me understand these things inside and out so I can ponder your miracle-wonders. My sad life’s dilapidated, a falling-down barn, build me up again by your Word. Barricade the road that goes nowhere; grace me with your clear revelation.”
The Old Testament presents God in a role that includes His willingness to hear the voice of His creation and the unspoken doubts and words of the heart and mind. As El Roi (the God who hears), He is the God who heard the story of the Fall from Adam and Eve in the Garden, He is the God who heard the wails of Hagar and Ishmael dying in the desert, and He is the God who heard the cry of the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt. In short, Yahweh was the God who hears and cares about humanity.
Likewise, the New Testament presents Jesus as this same God who came into this fallen world hearing, caring, and restoring humanity. Jesus heard blind Bartimaeus when he cried out, “Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me!”, He heard the adoration of the woman when she broke the box of alabaster. He heard the cry of the accusers and the resigned whimper of the woman when He knelt to write in the dirt. Over the roar of the crowd, He heard Zacchaeus up in a tree and he heard the heartbeat of the woman who reached out to touch the hem of His garment. This Jesus was and is El Roi, the God who hears and compels the emulation of this listening behavior by those who are called; “For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you,” and “Go, and do thou likewise.”
As a people called to emulate the God who hears, the church steps into that role as God’s active empathetic listener in the community in which they live. This listening role requires one to respectfully focus on the speaker cognitively, behaviorally, and relationally while reflecting a full range of the perceived emotional and relational aspects to the other(s) involved in the event. There are three basic steps in the listening dance, be they chaplain, pastor, counselor, and/or friend. First, the listener hears the story (sometimes in all its shocking details). Second, the listener ensures honesty and depth by reframing and/or asking the speaker tough clarifying questions to discover the breadth of the story. As well, while suspending judgement in the moment, the listener affirms the reality of the events, emotions, and behaviors of the story.
This process of “stepping respectfully and compassionately into another’s narrative” begins when listeners enter into the speaker’s “story-making with a sense of wonder, awe, and humility, opening himself up to the mystery of life narratives.” Active empathetic listeners enter another’s pain or joy by making emotional and spiritual connections through their story, demonstrating kindness, empathy, and compassion by being present with them emotionally, spiritually, and physically. The job of active empathetic listening occurs when one holds up a mirror so the speaker can see how his or her own story mingles with God’s story and how their combined story contains inherent beauty, power, and redemption. When one sees this beauty, it creates a sense of homecoming—a sense of belonging—greater than this temporary life.
THE ROLE OF AEL IN INTERCULTURAL SETTINGS
Everyone tells stories – children, youth, and adults of all ages. Hidden inside those stories, like diamonds in the rough, are the deep truths of the unconscious. Story telling is a form of self-disclosure. You cannot avoid telling your story. You can only try to make it abstract, in an attempt to hide the deeper struggles you are experiencing.
From pastoral care and counseling to missionary work, listening lies at the heart of all that is ministry. Listening is the act of receiving and understanding “what another human person has to say. Listening, unlike other forms of silence though, requires that the listener be open and active, not asleep or dead. The true listener is quiet and yet sensitive, open, receptive and alive to the one listened to.” The important point in intercultural settings is the same as in all listening events, the imperative of being fully understood—fully your real self.
When listening occurs within a familiar setting, among familiar faces, a familiar culture, and a familiar language, it creates a potentially sacred space that can bring succor, comfort, and peace in an otherwise chaotic and strange world. However, when listening occurs within an unfamiliar setting, among unfamiliar faces, an unfamiliar culture, and/or in an unfamiliar language, it creates the potential for chaos, ignorance, misunderstanding, stereotyping, profiling, and outright dismissal. Often, even in the familiar, what you see is frequently not what is, and what they say is usually not the problem. When this is compounded by the unfamiliar across cultural lines, the potential for a negative outcome is exponentially greater.
Vhumani Magezi postulated six foundational principles for mitigating intercultural misunderstandings: holistic care that covers every aspect of life; attentively seeing/listening to their voices; empowerment through education and self-determination; care based upon koinonia (selfless love); involvement of the whole body of believers, learning together; and preparation and planning. Each principle independently requires active empathetic listening: only by listening will one hear the full range of needs in the speaker’s life; only listening will hear and see the voice of those we don’t understand; only listening can empower (equip) self-determination of one’s educational potential; only listening can define the basis of love across cultures; only listening discovers the gifting of those who are different; and only though listening can the unfamiliar (powerless) join the dominate (powerful) in preparing and planning the future.
Given a chance, sharing stories across culture opens a new world of enlightenment for both the listener and the speaker. Listening explains the way the unfamiliar makes sense of life in general and events specifically, and it demonstrates the way one digs through the minutia that bombards life through strange media, news, radio, and television, and it clarifies the way one understands the overwhelming, complex, and unexperienced world. An active empathetic listener builds mutual trust between both parties; assists them in discovering meaning in the crucible of suffering, joy, and the upheaval of their formally ordinary life; and assists with the convolutions of theological meaning that emerges from intercultural stories that spawn from historical, biblical, and global theologies.
Active empathetic listening enables “listeners to enter into the real-life, human experiences of people who struggle to recover their humanity” while migrating in a strange new world/situation. Such deep listening guards “against the overgeneralization that is a temptation of culturalists. It permits stereotypes to be challenged by the concrete experiences of living people - a crucial task in an intercultural approach.” While little else can be certain in the news, the certainty of misunderstandings permeates social media, border disputes, immigration thinktanks, and government bureaucracy. This author’s prayer would be that the church would appear in the cross-cultural chaos as a people that realize “that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people are looking for an ear that will listen.” Let it not be said that “they do not find it among Christians, because these Christians [were] talking when they should be listening...”
THE BENEFITS OF AEL IN INTERCULTURAL SETTINGS
“The discovery that Jesus becomes our guest when we offer hospitality to ‘the least of these’ is an expression of this reciprocity…. In the experience of reciprocity, hospitality extended [listening] by us to those in need becomes hospitality [listening] returned to us from Jesus.”
Churches must listen as the stranger shares their premigration, migration, and post-migration stories from one culture to another. When the voices of the silent are allowed to speak, opportunities arise for the still, small voice of the Spirit/Word to demonstrate how their similar story combines with God’s grand biblical narrative where He loved the world in concrete ways that are palatable and understandable. “The purpose of gaining voice [telling one’s story] is not to drown out those other voices in the community, but to enable all to be co-authors and co-creators with each other and with God.” Nothing will draw one closer to God, to their new community, to healing, and to His beauty than when his/her story is received into a relationship with that same story-telling God as part of His on-going creation.
For many, the very act of listening by a pastor, a greeter, an acquaintance, and/or a new friend they meet in the community of the church creates a warm awareness of being heard, seen, and valued in an often-unwelcoming world. In this researcher’s experience (especially in this postmodern generation), many, if not most, are not necessarily looking for specific answers and/or solutions to their complex problems, rather they seek a safe place of welcome, a change from the ordinary struggles that persist every day, and a place to be heard/seen away from the mundane, and sometimes hopeless, existence of everyday life.
Listening to the pain and the joy of the other in our midst allows the voices of the unheard to speak and may never happened unless the church intentionally make space for it. The culturally different, the mentally challenged, the disabled, the feeble, and the very old/young lose all sense of self-value until a listener takes time to be present with them in their loneliness. Finally, the ‘hopelessly’ broken find hope in joining their voices to the story of the unfathomable mercy of God and the sacrifice of His Son on the cross in payment for one’s sin. Often the inherent ‘myths’ and ‘stereotypes’ assumed about the traditions and culture of the other remain unrecognized in the silenced voices/stories of disenfranchised people whose culture and history is unknown.
If the church makes no effort to listen to the stories of the other or to share the stories of their strange new world, the relationship remains unfamiliar, unpalatable, ineffective, and unsustainable. To break this chain of events (cause/unheard—effect/outsider), one must “listen deeply to [the other] who has been deprived of voice or authority, believing whatever she says and allowing her to name and define the problems she experiences, creates a novelty that in itself empowers and strengthens.” This ability, in part, to tell the story that names the pain, names the fear, and/or names the joy, names whatever the care seeker wishes to name, empowers, strengthens, and makes new relationship/community real and possible.
Quite simply, one can only begin to understand the other after the sharing, telling, and listening to story in the illuminating light and power of God’s own story. Only when the church intentionally takes the time to better understand the other—especially when the other is culturally different—through listening and reflecting on their joint stories in the light of God’s story will they create the community intended by Jesus. Mutual transparency, through active empathetic listening, can bridge the gulf across intercultural lines, provide an ability to see clearly, and stop the knowing in part.
THE ABSENCE OF AEL IN INTERCULTURAL SETTINGS
Listen deeply to one who has been deprived of voice or authority, believing whatever she says and allowing her to name and define the problems she experiences, creates a novelty that in itself empowers and strengthens… The purpose of gaining voice is not to drown out those other voices in the community, but to enable all to be co-authors and co-creators with each other and with God.
“The pastoral healer listens deeply to the sighs and groans of humans in distress. The healer listens” when communicating across cultural lines; and one is not able to fully understand “without struggling with the cultural differences within and surrounding what is said.” Emma Justes, in her seminal work on listening, postulated, “The problem with listening is that it is so easy not to do.” Doing the job of listening effectively will take more than education, practice, or instruction. All of these are beneficial and should be taken advantage of, but dependence upon them alone will not produce the results desired. Listeners must struggle with the arduous task of reflecting honestly: “Have I heard correctly? Am I listening well? Did I hear what was important? Will my response be clearly understandable?” The more one grapples with being a good listener, the more they realize that it will take the active role of the Holy Spirit.
Another troubling area, not initially pursued in my recently completed dissertation, but confirmed when a reoccurring theme manifested itself, was expressed specifically about the absence of being listened to by pastoral caregivers in nine out of eleven interviews. This absence of listening is troubling, especially when it is compounded by seven separate examples that also express a desire for someone to listen to them. Specifically poignant were these words, “This is the first time I have been interviewed [since I’ve been in America, six years] …this thing is really good because I get to share my experiences… this is a really good experience for me” or, in other words: This is the first time someone listened to me! Another remarked that this was the first time since being in the United States anybody cared enough to listen to her story. This should remind everyone “that good listening skills can indeed be taught and learned, but not in a one-off session. It requires repetition and consistency. It also needs to be modelled by [pastoral leadership]. It needs to be embedded and integrated into training.”
Further, the mass, forced migration of people groups in geographically troubled areas has contributed immensely to the problems of globalism and apropos to this paper. The 280 million people, that make up the modern-day diaspora, overwhelms the abilities of caregivers and leaves no time for listening or researching the cultural and ethnic norms and/or expectations. Consequently, most caregivers’ approach to intercultural pastoral care reflects their own tradition, history, and contextual experiences and is “relevant to those whose religious, educational, and professional context are similar to theirs.” There remains a temptation in all caregivers to presume the needs of others, which becomes even more tempting the greater the gap is in one’s understanding. Often, when one does not understand others, they activate one’s elitist presuppositions. Such professional arrogance assumes one knows the need, the emphasis, the solution, and/or care needed.
SUMMARIES, LESSONS LEARNED, AND SUGGESTED REMEDIES
“First time… [anybody] cared… to listen,” “This is the first time I have been interviewed [since being in America],” “…this thing is really good because I get to share my experiences,” “this is a really good experience for me,” and “Thank you for coming and listening to us… it desperately helps.”
Active empathetic listeners allow the often-silent other to have a voice while negotiating life among the hitherto unknown and overwhelming impulses of the dominate culture. Only by listening in relationship can one learn the contrasting cultural differences that exist across immigration lines, across gender ideologies, across economic brackets, across political positions, and across age disparities. Intentional active empathetic listening, set in a desire to know and be known, brings a space of understanding to any relationship. Hearing the stories that influence others as they assimilate in the dominant culture allows for multi-directional interpretation and collaboration with the God who created us all. The inclusion of participatory collusion between the speaker and the listener creates mutual transparency when the caregiver and the care seeker bridge the gulf across all cultural lines.
“One of the major obstacles to listening is talking.” The church must pause their talking, their singing, and even their preaching to give voice (listening) to the voiceless, “...listen to them, to discover with them what their needs and problems are.” “If there’s anything worth calling theology, it is listening to people’s stories—listening to them and honoring and cherishing them, and asking them to become even more brightly beautiful than they already are.”Nothing draws others closer to God, to their ‘new’ family, to healing, and to His beauty than when one joins his/her story as a co-creator with that same storytelling Creator. The church must enable the voices of the other to sound clearly in a setting where they are often excluded from the altar and community of God based on linguistical, financial, and logistical grounds.
Active empathetic listening to the pain of the other “is not only difficult to do well, but it can be uncomfortable when done well.” Further, “The more you listen in depth, the more you will become aware that most people have relatively little insight into their own lives. Perhaps people’s lives are unexamined because no one is listening to them.” Possibly, listening is uncomfortable or absent because in many cases the other pours out horrendous stories of fear, anger, frustration, desperation, loneliness, violence, abuse, and so much more. However, the church is called to emulate Christ—the El Roi (the God who listens)—and must pursue listening through education, praxis, reflection, reeducation, further praxis, further reflection, further reeducation, etc. The more this cycle is repeated, the better the listener will become.
Without the ability to actively listen emphatically, even with the least of one’s community, most pastoral efforts remain worthless. Consequently, the recommendation for training, practicing, and reflecting on one’s listening skills provides a hallowed place that welcomes the other, works to bring peace, and restores the confused, displaced, and broken world. In this holy space Jesus becomes the guest when we listen, extending love and hospitality to the least of these.,
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 97-98.
 Caitlin G. Bletscher & SuYeon Lee, “The Impact of Active Empathetic Listening on an Introductory Communication Course” (College Teaching 69, no. 3: 2021), 162.
 Ibid, 162-163.
 Howard Clinebell & Bridget Clare McKeever, Basic Types of Pastoral Care & Counseling (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2011), 67, 71.
 Psalms 119:26-29, (The Message).
 Genesis 3:10-13.
 Genesis 21:16-19.
 Exodus 2:23-25.
 All Scripture quotations are KJV unless otherwise noted.
 Mark 10:47.
 Luke 7:37.
 John 8:11.
 Luke 19:1-4.
 Luke 23:43.
 John 13:15.
 Luke 10:37.
 Carrie Doehring, The Practice of Pastoral Care, Revised and Expanded Edition: A Postmodern Approach (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), xvi-xvii.
 John O’Donohue, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2005), 2.
 John Savage, Listening and Caring Skills (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 77.
 Emmanuel Y. Lartey, In Living Color: An Intercultural Approach to Pastoral Care and Counseling (London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2003), Loc. 916-918.
 Vhumani Magezi, “Pastoral Care to Migrants as Care at the ‘In-Between’ and ‘Liminal’ Home Away from Home: Towards Public Pastoral Care to Migrants” (Verbum et Ecclesia 40, no. 1, January 2019), 7-8.
 Karen D. Scheib, Pastoral Care: Telling the Stories of Our Lives (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2016), 1-5.
 Carrie Doehring, The Practice of Pastoral Care, Revised and Expanded Edition: A Postmodern Approach (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), xv.
 Lartey, In Living Color (2003), Loc. 1343-1345.
 Ibid, Loc. 922-923.
 Emma J. Justes, Hearing Beyond the Words: How to Become a Listening Pastor (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006), 94.
 David R. Burfield, “Identifying Pastoral Care in Contemporary Methodism.” (PhD diss., University of Nottingham: London, England, 1995), 151.
 Clinebell & McKeever, Basic Types of Pastoral Care & Counseling (2011), 71-92.
 Christie Cozad Neuger, Counseling Women: A Narrative, Pastoral Approach (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 71-92.
 Clinebell & McKeever, Basic Types of Pastoral Care & Counseling (2011), 100.
 Emanuel Lartey, Pastoral Theology in an Intercultural World (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013), 110-112.
 1 Corinthians 13:12.
 Neuger, Counseling Women (2001), 71-92.
 Lartey, In Living Color (2003), Loc. 651
 Justes, Hearing Beyond the Words (2010), Loc. 117.
 Ibid, Loc. 99.
 Justes, Hearing Beyond the Words (2006), 72.
 Joey R. Peyton, “A Modern Exodus in Need of Care: Holistic Pastoral Care to Diaspora Populations in the St. Louis, Missouri, Area” (ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global, 2022).
 Ibid, 221.
 William Bloom, “Whole Body Listening” (Journal of Holistic Healthcare 11, no. 1, Spring 2014), 23
 United Nations Website (2021).
 Doehring, “Enlivening Models of Pastoral Care” (2015), xxvii.
 Peyton, “A Modern Exodus in Need of Care” (2022), 220-222.
 Lartey, Pastoral Theology in an Intercultural World (2013), 110-112.
 Lartey, In Living Color (2003), Loc. 918.
 Edward F. Dobihal, “Prophetic Ministry to the Dying: An Interview by Parker Rossman” (Christian Century, 1976), 384-387.
 Neuger, Counseling Women (2001), 71.
 Alfred R. Brunsdon, “Towards a Pastoral Care for Africa: Some Practical Theological Considerations for a Contextual Approach” (In Reformed Theology Today: Practical-Theological, Missiological and Ethical Perspectives, edited by Sarel P. Van der Walt and Nico Vorster, 105-122. Cape Town, South Africa: AOSIS Ltd, 2017), 112-114.
 Justes, Hearing Beyond the Words (2006), 89.
 Savage, Listening and Caring Skills (1996), 33.
 Matthew 25:45.
 Justes, Hearing Beyond the Words (2006), 94.
Bletscher, Caitlin G., & SuYeon Lee. “The Impact of Active Empathetic Listening on an Introductory Communication Course.” College Teaching 69, no. 3 (2021): 161-168.
Bloom, William. “Whole Body Listening.” Journal of Holistic Healthcare 11, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 22-24.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. New York, New York: Harper & Row, 1954.
Brunsdon, Alfred R. “Towards a Pastoral Care for Africa: Some Practical Theological Considerations for a Contextual Approach.” In Reformed Theology Today: Practical-Theological, Missiological and Ethical Perspectives, edited by Sarel P. Van der Walt and Nico Vorster, 105-122. Cape Town, South Africa: AOSIS Ltd, 2017.
Burfield, David R. “Identifying Pastoral Care in Contemporary Methodism.” PhD dissertation, University of Nottingham: London, England, 1995.
Clinebell, Howard & Bridget Clare McKeever. Basic Types of Pastoral Care & Counseling. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, Kindle Edition, 2011.
Dobihal, Edward F. “Prophetic Ministry to the Dying: An Interview by Parker Rossman.” Christian Century 93, no. 14 (April 21, 1976): 384-387.
Doehring, Carrie. “Enlivening Models of Pastoral Care: Relating Theory to the Complex Life Experiences Depicted in Fiction.” Pastoral Psychology 46, no. 1 (September 1997): 19-33.
Doehring, Carrie. The Practice of Pastoral Care, Revised and Expanded Edition: A Postmodern Approach. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.
Justes, Emma J. Hearing Beyond the Words: How to Become a Listening Pastor. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006.
——--Hearing Beyond the Words: How to Become a Listening Pastor. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, Kindle Edition, 2010.
Lartey, Emmanuel Y. In Living Color: An Intercultural Approach to Pastoral Care and Counseling, 2nd ed. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Kindle Edition, 2003.
——--Pastoral Theology in an Intercultural World. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013.
Magezi, Vhumani. “Pastoral Care to Migrants as Care at the ‘In-Between’ and ‘Liminal’ Home Away from Home: Towards Public Pastoral Care to Migrants.” Verbum et Ecclesia 40, no. 1 (January 2019): 1-8.
Neuger, Christie Cozad. Counseling Women: A Narrative, Pastoral Approach. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001.
O’Donohue, John. Beauty: The Invisible Embrace. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2005.
Peyton, J. R. “A Modern Exodus in Need of Care: Holistic Pastoral Care to Diaspora Populations in the St. Louis, Missouri, Area.” ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (2729107848), 2022. https://0-www-proquest-com.swan.searchmobius.org/dissertations-theses/modern-exodus-need-care-holistic-pastoral/docview/2729107848/se-2
Savage, John. Listening and Caring Skills: A Guide for Groups and Leaders. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2010.
Scheib, Karen D. Pastoral Care: Telling the Stories of Our Lives. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2016.
United Nations Website. “Department of Economic and Social Affairs.” Accessed November 03, 2021.http://www.unmigration.org.
Van der Walt, Sarel P. & Nico Vorster, eds. Reformed Theology Today: Practical-Theological, Missiological and Ethical Perspectives. Cape Town, South Africa: AOSIS Ltd, 2017.
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