Listening may be the most important aspect to Christian counseling. James writes, “Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (Jas. 1:19). Job tells his friends, “Listen carefully to my words; let this be the consolation that you give to me” (Job 21:1). The Proverbs remind us,
(Prov. 18:2) A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions.
(Prov. 18:13) He who answers before listening—that is his folly and his shame.
(Prov. 20:5) The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out.
(Prov. 29:20) Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him.
As pastoral counselors, our credibility will be hampered if we do not listen effectively. Collins notes, “What you say may be worthwhile, but even good advice is seldom heard and even less likely to be followed, especially if the counselee feels you have not listened carefully.” The young believer can’t imagine that anyone could accurately discern the answer to their struggles. Even if you’ve dealt with a similar situation a hundred times beforehand, you need to listen patiently without immediately giving advice.
Ways to become a better listener
Pray. Before entering a time of counseling, express your dependence on God in prayer. Pray that God would give you wisdom in discerning the person’s needs (Jas. 1:5). Pray that God would give you the attentiveness to focus on the person, and understand the core issues involved.
Empathize. While you may have encountered a similar case before, every person is different and carries different baggage. Allow the person to talk and explain what they’re going through.
Allow for silence. We see this in Robin Williams’ character in the movie Good Will Hunting. He waits for Matt Damon’s character to talk, rather than filling the air with questions or thoughts.
Avoid correcting or moralizing. A counselee might say, “I’m so frustrated that I want to get a divorce!” Of course, some counselors would be tempted to pounce on this statement, giving a sermonette about the immoral nature of divorce. Instead, you might say, “I can see how you’d feel that way.” This statement affirms how the person is feeling, without affirming their choice to get a divorce. Of course, Christian counselors should stand for the truth of Scripture, but being able to listen and empathize is a basic expression of love. Collins says counselors should avoid “subtle verbal or nonverbal expressions of disapproval or judgment about what is being said, even when the content is offensive or shocking.”
Watch for non-verbal communication. Look at their facial expressions, body movement, posture, and breathing rate. These help show how they are thinking and feeling. The tone, volume, and tempo of speech are also important in this regard.
Give verbal or non-verbal feedback. Give an occasional “Uh-huh” or “Can you tell me more about that?” Maintain an appropriate amount of eye-contact. Nod occasionally. Be aware of your facial expression as they are talking. Sit in an open, relaxed way that encourages self-disclosure.
Check for understanding. Paraphrase what the person said from time to time, maybe even repeated this back to them.
Take notes. Sometimes in a counseling session, a person might say something that you want to push back on. However, because they are explaining themselves, it might be better to wait until a more opportune time. It might feel uncomfortable to take notes in the moment, but you might take notes at the end of your time together to help process what you’ve heard. This also serves as a way of remembering what they talked about before your next time together.
Don’t shoot from the hip with counsel. If you don’t have answers, just express general encouragement, prayer, and concern. Wait until you’ve sought wise counsel, done further reading, and return with a wise reply later.
Lead the conversation. We want to lead the conversation—not follow it. Keep the person on track. Don’t allow them to ramble and become a doormat that is being walked all over.
Ask open ended questions. We might ask, “Tell me about your marriage,” rather than one word questions like, “Are you married?” Collins writes, “The counselee assumes you are asking questions for a reason and concludes that this is like a doctor’s office, where the patient expects a diagnosis and proposal for treatment at the end of the appointment time after responding to all the questions.”
Resist overwhelming the counselee. We might see multiple issues to address after counseling a person. Learn to prioritize what is most important to address, and leave other issues for later on down the road.
It’s better to be concrete, rather than abstract. When we make our call with the counselee, it’s best to be brief and to the point. Collins writes, “Try to avoid giving too much information at any one time. Be clear in what you say, as brief as possible (nobody remembers long lectures).”
Many of the points from this essay were generously taken from McCallum and Delashmutt, “Key Pastoral Counseling Tools.”
Collins, Gary. Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide (3rd ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers. 2006. Chapter Five: The Core of Counseling.
 Collins, Gary. Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide (3rd ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers. 2006. 69.
 Collins, Gary. Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide (3rd ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers. 2006. 68.
 Collins, Gary. Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide (3rd ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers. 2006. 70.
 Collins, Gary. Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide (3rd ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers. 2006. 71.
 Collins, Gary. Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide (3rd ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers. 2006. 72.