How To Help Everyone Feel Your Presence

Communication Breakdown

I sat across from a young couple today as they had a conversation with a Pastor during breakfast. I knew he was Pastor because he mentioned it. Actually, he mentioned it a lot. His conversation was littered with things like, “Since I am a Pastor…” or “Being a Pastor I know..”

As the conversation continued, the couple sat quietly, sipping their coffee and exchanging glances. This lasted for 30 minutes as he jumped between Old Testament stories, anecdotes about himself, Hebrew and Greek words, Christian-y words and phrases, and pointed political opinions.

When he finally finished talking, the young guy saw his opportunity to start finally insert his first thought. I am not sure what he was going to say because only after few moments the Pastor interjected, with a smirk, “I’ll let you finish your dissertation before I address that”.

Not long after the pastor looked at his watch, said it was time for him to go, and said he hoped to see them Sunday and left. The young couple just looked at each other. The girl looked around and said, “Did I miss something or did all of that have nothing to do with what we asked to talk about?”

Crash and Burn

It was a complete disaster. I’m sure the Pastor thought he had dispensed some valuable wisdom and they were leaving enlightened. In reality, they seemed confused and maybe even a bit upset. What they had asked him I don’t know but they sure had not received an answer or at least they were not able fish it out of the long 30 minute speech. I really felt for the couple. There were a few times I wanted to jump in, apologize to the couple, and send the Pastor off to finish his sermon elsewhere.

What struck me though was the complete satisfaction the Pastor seemed to have and the devastatingly and utter dissatisfaction the young couple had. How could the two parties have such different experiences? How could I see so clearly what the Pastor could not? And why was I so angry about the whole thing?

Listen First

I have no clue what the pastor thought his purpose was in that conversation but he spent most of the time doing the complete opposite of what he should have – listening. He spent 30 minutes talking and all of about 5 minutes listening. To make matters worse, when he was “listening” he was looking around the room or looking at his phone.

Studies have shown that on average, people only hear half of what was is said in a given conversation. Even more interesting, a study from Florida State University and Michigan State University has shown that, “two months after listening to a talk, the average listener will remember only about 25% of what was said.”(Source: Harvard Business Review). So, the Pastor talked today for 30 minutes, which means the couple will optimistically remember 7.5 minutes of this conversation two months from now. That’s not much and to be honest may be a good thing.

Information Loss

Though they may only remember 7.5 minutes of information from their conversation today, I can tell you with utmost certainty what they will remember – how they felt. I’m sure they felt confused, felt like time wasted, upset, and clearly not heard given her comment at the end. I know I would quickly find the exit door if I saw him approaching any time after.

The act of listening is one of respect and humility Click to Tweet

Listening is powerful in many ways. Ever have someone cut you off mid-sentence and then you find yourself arguing about why they cut you off and not what you were talking about? It’s because the act of listening is one of respect and humility. It communicates to the one speaking that not only is the thing they are talking about worthy of your time but the whole person is worthy of respect and your time. The Pastor communicated none of that whether he said otherwise.

Knowledge is Power but Presence is King

The Pastor had a ton of knowledge – that was very clear from the start. His insight into sections of the Bible showed he had spent a lot of time studying things very closely and to that I give him credit. On the other hand it seems like it’s all he had in his tool belt. I wanted to lean over and tell him to stop talking and go write a book about it.

I love to learn and read so I sympathize with the teachers, learners, and even the Pastor out there who need to tell the world about what they have learned. I have learned though that knowledge or transfer of information is not always the answer to any given situation – in fact it may be quite the opposite.

I’m sure you have received wisdom or given wisdom to someone grieving. Finding the right words to say is tough and if the wrong words are offered it can sometime be quite upsetting to the one grieving. An article on helping people help those grieving offers some interesting tips that seem almost too simple and counter to what we think we might need to do.

  • “Accept and acknowledge all feelings. Let the grieving person know that it’s okay to cry in front of you, to get angry, or to break down. Don’t try to reason with him or her over how he or she should or shouldn’t feel. The bereaved should feel free to express his or her feelings without fear of judgment, argument, or criticism.
  • Be willing to sit in silence. Don’t press if the grieving person doesn’t feel like talking. You can offer comfort and support with your silent presence. If you can’t think of something to say, just offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug.
  • Let the bereaved talk about how his or her loved one died. People who are grieving may need to tell the story over and over again, sometimes in minute detail. Be patient. Repeating the story is a way of processing and accepting the death. With each retelling, the pain lessens.
  • Offer comfort and reassurance without minimizing the loss. Tell the bereaved that what he or she is feeling is okay. If you’ve gone through a similar loss, share your own experience if you think it would help. However, don’t give unsolicited advice, claim to “know” what the person is feeling, or compare your grief to his or hers.” (Source: Help Guide.org)

Making the Connection

Why did I put that there? There was absolutely no mention of knowledge or information transfer. In fact, you are told to try and not provide what you know. What you find out is that the person needs your presence and not knowledge. Whether thats acknowledging their feelings, letting them talk, and offering help or even silence with the person – these are about the one grieving.

A little aside, knowing this may save you many fights and may help you grow in maturity faster than many things. Maybe your need to express your opinion just isn’t that important and maybe they just need you. Take the current election year mess that we are in. I would love to see people who ask more questions, talk less, listen more, and don’t feel the need express every single differing and countering opinion. Is it impossible today to look someone in the face and appreciate them, differing views and opinions et all, and show them care and love? You would almost believe it is.

Politics aside, I don’t know what question was burning in their hearts but I can imagine how different it could have been. What would have happened if he offered himself to them as a friend and servant and not just his knowledge.

Cliche Talk

Lastly, this is something that is exclusively for us Christian folk out there. I need you to understand that this exhortation, or whatever you may call it, comes from a good but frustrated place: If you have positioned yourself to listen. If you have offered yourself as a friend and care about them genuinely. If you have done these things and you have earned the right give some wisdom or insight please do this one thing… talk like a normal person.

I listened to the Pastor talk like he was transplanted from another planet using vernacular and phrases that seemed either cheesy or bizarre – I can’t tell the difference. Every cliched Christian phrase he could have used he used. I think he even made up some on the spot, much to his amusement. I promise the couple was not amused

The Ned Flanders Syndrome

To be fair, there are some things about the Christian faith when described are going to be jarring to unfamiliar ears. That’s a given and should be accepted but I don’t think we do our cause any justice by sounding like a cross between Ned Flanders and your lovely old Sunday School teacher in 3rd grade who yells, “Oh, fiddle-sticks!” when she stubbed her toe. I believe, in some ways, the world stopped listening because we stopped being listenable. The message is still powerful and life-giving but our speech has become stuck in a bubble where only those inside get it and those outside are puzzled.

I believe many don’t know the real Jesus today because many don’t know how to talk to people today about him in personal ways. We talk to people normally about movies, restaurants, and sports events and the moment Jesus comes into the conversation we sound like a Televangelist or feel like we have to sound like one. We have made Jesus sound polished and “out there” but the world needs to hear about the Jesus with dirt in his fingernails and cracked skin on his hands. We all need to hear about how He changed everything about you and your life, not in your grandparents way but yours.

The Challenge

I’m sure the Pastor had a good heart and maybe they would all get together again – I hope they do. The challenge though is will we change out patterns for other people’s sake? Will find more joy in the art of presence? Will be more satisfied to be near than to be heard?

Greg Smith

Blogging about faith, life, church, and everything in between.

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