Ray Silverman, PhD
Includes notes compiled from interviews with Dean Brian Henderson and Rev. Mark Carlson. Based in part on the Odyssey Mentoring Program developed by Bri Kern and Cathy Schnarr for New Church Connection, and listening skills taught by Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt. The inspiration for this program comes from an unpublished Senior Thesis by Hannah Reynolds, “The Safety Net: A Theory on the Promotion of Mental Health and Community Building within the Collegiate Sphere.”
Do: Listen, Support, Encourage, Show Interest
Do Not: Fix, Advise, Analyze, Prescribe, Evaluate, Mediate, Solve, Remedy, Cure
You can give your friends all the advice you want—you can even tell them that they need to confront someone. If they actually take your advice and get their nose broken during the confrontation you will not get in legal trouble for giving bad advice. But if you give the same advice as an institutional representative, and your friend gets a broken nose—the institution you represent could be legally liable for your friend’s injury.
While most listening sessions will be entirely confidential, there are times when you will need to break confidentiality—especially if you begin to hear someone saying things that suggest danger to themselves or to someone else. At such times, you will need to report your concern to the Dean. As Rev. Mark Carlson has said, “It’s better to have a live enemy than a dead friend.”
There are different levels that you should be aware of:
- The person merely expresses a thought “Sometimes I feel like killing myself.”
- The person expresses an intention: “I’m thinking about killing myself.”
- The person has a plan: “I’m thinking about taking my sleeping pills.”
A level 3 statement should definitely be reported to Dean of Student Affairs.
Ordinarily, though, people should feel free to discuss anything with you. You are not a Resident Assistant, just a non-judgmental listener. Therefore, you have no responsibility for enforcing college policies or reporting infractions. You might hear things about sexuality, underage drinking, taking illegal drugs, same-sex experimentation, getting pregnant, or cheating on tests. But you do not need to report any of this to the Dean—unless it appears to be life-threatening.
Your Role as a Peer Listener
You are simply there to provide a space safe for someone to talk openly about things that matter deeply to them—with the hope that in speaking to someone who really listens, they can find positive direction for their lives. You are not there to judge, advise, counsel or fix. Most of all—and this is also true for all helping professionals—do not take responsibility for the outcome. People are free to make their own decisions, and they will. This has nothing to do with you. Your only responsibility is be a good listener.
But being a good listener is not a passive activity. There are several things you can do. These include:
- Design your alliance:
Be entirely open to allowing the person who has come to you to set the agenda. Find out what they would like to accomplish, how much time they need, and what role they would like you to play. Be sure they know that you are there to be a good listener and not to give advice. Find out if you have permission to interrupt, ask questions, and be somewhat directive, especially if you sense that it would be useful to focus on certain aspects of what they have said.
- Be clear about your own goals:
Remember that you are a listener—not a dumping ground. Your goal is to help people get clear, simply by listening deeply. You are not a place where people just complain, blame and dump garbage—without moving towards positive action.
- Loosely parrot:
Simply repeat what you have heard, using words that are similar to (but not exactly the same as) the ones used by the speaker. This let’s people know that you are listening and interested.
- Show understanding:
Use statements like, “Yes, I can understand why you would feel that way.”
- Show empathy:
When appropriate, share something from your own life that lets the person know that you have been there too. Be careful about this, though. Just tell enough to demonstrate that you know how it feels. Don’t take over and make it your show.
- Be genuinely interested:
Manifest an attitude of pure curiosity. Use body language and ask questions that reveal your deep interest. Questions like “Is there more?” “Can you tell me more about that?” and “Is there anything else?” should be sprinkled into your listening. Give facial and body signals that telegraph your interest. You can lean closer, nod your head, and say things like “Uh-huh,” “That’s interesting” and “No kidding,” The more genuinely interested you are, the more the other will open up to you.
If you are puzzled or confused, ask clarifying questions like, “What did you mean when you said...?” But avoid questions that come across as challenging, judgmental, analytical or confrontational. For example, do not ask “Why do you feel worthless?” or “Why do you keep drinking?”
- Help the speaker stay present:
Ask questions like, “What are you feeling now?” “On a scale of 1-10, how true or untrue do you think that thought is?” (10 being very true) “On a scale of 1-10 how are you feeling now?” (10 being wonderful)?” “What other thoughts are you having about that?” “What would you like me to ask you?” “What are you telling yourself about that?” “What do you make that mean?”
- Allow for silence:
Let the person who is speaking with you know that silence is OK. In fact, it’s safe to be silent together for a long, long time.
- Help people focus:
You may find that the person speaking with you will skip around from subject to subject. If you already have a prior agreement, take responsibility for helping them focus on one of the subjects they have brought up—something you think might be key. Listen for the place of deepest emotion—the most pain—and encourage them to talk about it. Again, you can use the “tell me more” or “is there more” technique. You will probably begin by listening for the pain, but as you get deeper, you may also get clues about what gives this person joy. This is especially important if the person is to leave the session feeling encouraged.
- Be action-oriented:
When you deeply listen to someone, you can help them discover who they are and what they want to do. Therefore, at some point in the listening, you will need to ask the powerful questions, “What do you truly want?” “What about this is important to you?” “What do you plan to do about it?” and “When will you do it?”
During the time that you form your alliance, you can ask for permission to “shoot the moon.” This means that you might take a wild guess at what’s going on. This is not done in the spirit of advice giving; you are just sharing a hunch—something that came to you as you listened. It allows for an insight to come to you—something that the speaker is free to accept or reject. Even if you totally miss the mark, it may allow for the speaker to become more clear about what is going on in his or her life. This is a deeply spiritual activity. As you listen intently to the person your are assisting, listen also for the “inward voice”—the still, small voice that may be the Lord’s presence with you both.
Finally, keep in mind that we are spiritual beings living simultaneously in the natural and spiritual world. This means that although it appears that our problems are external (failing classes, financial burdens, an inconsiderate roommate or an annoying boyfriend) all causes are always internal. At some point in the dialogue, the person who is speaking to you will need to realize that other people are not to blame for their depression, anger, sadness or resentment. Other people and external circumstances might be the trigger, but the explosives (our emotions) are within us. This is where awareness, prayer, and the willingness to rise above negative emotions is crucial.
As Peer Listeners, you need not “preach” about any of this. But you do need to be aware of it. This is why Jesus tells us, “Take first the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to help your brother take the speck out of his” (Matthew 7:5). When we help others to rise above ego concerns (the log in their eye), we also help them to see their present circumstances more clearly.