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Be quick to listen, slow to speak

December 18, 2018 by Eric Stillman 0 comments

“My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19-20).

This past Friday, nine years after I began, I completed my Masters of Professional Counseling. Three weeks ago, I shared one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from my internship: everyone has a story, so take the time to listen before you judge them. Two weeks, I shared another important lesson I have learned from my internship: Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind. Last week, the lesson I discussed was: Show up with a plan. Today, the lesson is straight out of the Bible: Be quick to listen, slow to speak (James 1:19).

One of the responsibilities I had in my internship was to do intakes with new clients. If you have never been through an intake, the whole process takes about an hour, and the counselor asks a ton of questions, including questions about symptoms the client may be experiencing, family history, trauma history, substance use history, legal history, health issues, a risk assessment for suicidal or homicidal behavior or ideation, and so on. As tedious as this process can be, the lesson is invaluable: don’t assume you know what a person needs until you have spent a long time listening to various aspects of their story.

I remember one intake in particular where I learned this lesson. Buried in one of the sections of the intake was a question about whether the client had experienced any postpartum issues. This was a question I skipped over for the men, and had never received anything significant from the women I had done intakes for. But in my last intake of my internship, the woman who was sitting with me opened up about an abortion she had been pressured into by her father when she was 18, and the devastating effect that had had on her. This revelation helped make sense of a lot of the issues she was experiencing. If I had rushed to treatment or been quick to offer solutions or advice without asking that question, I would have missed out on this significant aspect of her struggle.

I believe the lesson holds true for all of us, even if we are not counselors. Be quick to listen and slow to speak. Ask questions. Seek to understand the whole story, the whole person, before making a judgment or deciding what they need. Don’t assume you know “exactly how they feel” because you have been through something similar in your life. Think about it: how often have you heard someone share a story, and interrupted them to share a similar story from your own life, turning the attention to yourself, instead of staying on the other person’s story and truly seeking to understand how they are feeling?

I know that as a counselor, I had an advantage in being quick to listen and slow to speak, for the counselor-client relationship is really not supposed to be about the counselor’s story at all. Nevertheless, I would encourage you to try this out in your own relationships. Spend time listening, and really seeking to understand a person. Be slow to speak, and slow to make judgments, until you know the whole story.

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