Paying Attention

by George Hunsinger

George Hunsinger, who directs the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, recently wrote Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 22. pp. 24-30. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


When caregivers empty themselves of their own preoccupations in order to be fully present to another, they are, in their own small way, following the example of Christ, who emptied himself of his equality with God in order to participate fully in our human plight.

Christian caregivers seek to orient persons toward God as the One who will provide for them. All ministry is Christ’s ministry, in which the church is privileged to participate. In his book Life Together, Bonhoeffer theologically grounds the practice of listening to others in God’s love for humanity. God demonstrates his love for us by listening to us when we pray. By analogy, we are to show our love for our brothers and sisters by listening to them.

In listening to others, pastoral caregivers need an empathetic imagination, need to be willing to set aside their own preoccupations. They must seek to empty themselves in order to be fully present to the other. By attending to the other’s story, they aim to create a bridge of understanding. What needs emerge in the narrative being told? What concerns might be brought before God in prayer? Since they aim to intercede on the other’s behalf, caregivers strain to hear the inarticulate longings beneath the needs that are expressed. They endeavor to deepen the other’s connection with himself so that he might bring all of himself -- his joys and sorrows, his fears and doubts, his gratitude, regret and lament -- before God.

At the same time. caregivers listen to everything that is said in the light of God’s purpose and calling. There is a divine drama hidden in each person’s story that cries out to be heard. Trusting that Jesus Christ is already at work in this situation, caregivers will seek guidance from God. Because the gospel addresses fundamental human needs -- for forgiveness and reconciliation, for love and hope, for justice and mercy, in short, for salvation -- they listen to God as well as to the other. They wait for a divine word. How might God be calling this person forth in and through this challenging situation? What word might offer comfort or hope in a day of trouble?

As caregivers listen on behalf of the other, they also monitor their own emotional reactions. How does this story touch them? Where are they moved or not moved by it? How do they enter it intelligently? Knowing how to listen to themselves gives them tools for distinguishing between the issues of the person they are seeking to serve and their own.

The key to pastoral listening lies in keeping one’s clear intention on being present for the other. When one pays more attention to oneself than to the real needs of the other, one fails to hear the significance of what is being shared.

Martin Buber tells of a time when he was distracted by his own inner life:

What happened was no more than that one forenoon, after a morning of "religious" enthusiasm, I had a visit from an unknown young man, without being there in spirit. I certainly did not fail to let the meeting be friendly, I did not treat him any more remissly than all his contemporaries who were in the habit of seeking me out about this time of day. . . . I conversed attentively and openly with him -- only I omitted to guess the questions which he did not put. Later, not long after, I learned from one of his friends -- he himself was no longer alive -- the essential content of these questions; I learned that he had not come to me casually, but borne by destiny, not for a chat but for a decision. He had come to me, he had come in this hour. What do we expect when we are in despair and yet go to a man? Surely a presence by means of which we are told that nevertheless there is meaning.

The young man died "not long after" this meeting. The unstated intimation is that he took his own life. He had come "not for a chat but for a decision"; he was in despair and yet sought something from Buber. Elsewhere Buber acknowledges that the meeting was "an event of judgment" for him. Thereafter, he understood faith not as the pursuit of ecstatic experiences but as a life of attentiveness to others, the life of "I and thou" in encounter.

This incident marked a major turning point in Buber’s theological understanding, a turning away from otherworldly ecstasy and a turning toward the concrete other whom God has sent. Buber suggests that the young man needed a human presence that would convey a sense of purpose. He needed a trusted other to embody faith in the meaningfulness of life. A Christian appropriation of Buber’s insight might suggest a person who embodies the hope of Christ in full knowledge of the shadow of the cross.

The presence that Christian pastoral caregivers are called to offer, therefore, cannot be learned simply as a technique. There is an offering of oneself in Christ that cannot be created simply by learning skills. Pastoral care-givers cannot convey "a presence by means of which [others are] told that nevertheless there is meaning" unless they understand themselves as participating in a ministry not their own but Christ’s. They cannot manufacture meaning out of their own resources. The 17th-century French priest St. Vincent de Paul said, "If God is the center of your life, no words are necessary. Your mere presence will touch hearts." Yet no mere creatures can make God the center of their lives simply by willing it. Christ alone lived a life of obedience that truly had God at its center. Not by their own power but by virtue of their union with Christ, caregivers may witness to a compassionate presence that their own only dimly reflects.

What, then, is empathic listening? Nearly 50 years ago, Carl Rogers described empathy in this way: "To sense the client’s private world as if it were your own, but without ever losing the ‘as if’ quality -- this is empathy, and this seems essential to therapy. To sense the client’s anger, fear, or confusion as if it were your own, yet without your own anger, fear, or confusion getting bound up with it, is the condition we are endeavoring to describe."

Good listening involves three essential skills. The first is accurate paraphrase -- receiving with accuracy the content of what is being said. One learns to demonstrate one’s understanding by means of paraphrase, to recognize key words, and to reflect back content in a concise manner.

The second skill of good listening is productive questioning. It involves the ability to ask both questions that are open-ended, which serve to elicit further sharing, and questions that are essentially closed, which serve to clarify meaning.

The third skill of good listening is what’s called perception check. One needs to be able to distinguish one’s observations from the inferences one makes on the basis of those observations and to inquire about what one perceives.

Accurate paraphrase shows the speaker that the listener has heard accurately. The listener merely restates what the speaker has said in his own words, letting her know what he understands her to mean. In some cases the paraphrase shows the speaker that the listener has misheard or misunderstood her. Even this is useful, however, because it helps her focus her comments on the misunderstood part.

Consider the need for a more skillful use of accurate paraphrase in the following exchange. A pastor recounts his interview with "Grandma," who is completely dependent upon her daughter and son-in-law. In introducing the case, the pastor states that ‘the son-in-law deeply resents the restrictions her presence places upon him and his wife."

Pastor 1: Well, how are things going today?

Grandma 1: Oh, I don’t know, pastor. (She wiped a few tears. Sensing that something was on her mind, I waited. But she didn’t speak. So 1 prompted her.)

Pastor 2: You have lots of time to think while you lie up here by yourself all day.

Grandma 2: Yes. (Long silence.)

Pastor 3: Perhaps you would like to talk about it.

Grandma 3: Well, I just lie here and think about everything.

Pastor 4: And something worries you?

Grandma 4: No -- except I just wonder if I’ll be missed.

Pastor 5: You’re not sure of what some of the children think, or how they feel about you?

GrandmaS: That’s right. All my life I slaved for my family. I would take in washings all day and then at night go down and get down on my hands and knees in one of the office buildings and scrub floors until after midnight. I would have to come home alone on the streetcar at one o’clock in the morning. It wasn’t easy. My life was terribly hard. (Tears and silence.) But what thanks do I get? None!

Pastor 6: In other words, you worked hard to rear your family, but now they don’t seem to appreciate it. They don’t seem to care that you have done so much for them.

Grandma 6: Is it my fault that I am no longer as strong as I once was? I can’t help it that I can’t take care of myself. Believe me, I don’t want to be here in bed any more than they want me to be here. All my life I have taken care of myself, and it isn’t a bed of roses to have to lie here like a baby and be waited on by people who grumble at you all the time they are doing it. I’d almost rather die -- much as I dread that -- than have to lie here much longer! (And again she wiped her eyes.)

Pastor 7: I’m sorry, very sorry that you feel this way. I would like to feel that I understand. But I’m sure that behind all the family might say, they love you very much and are pleased they are able to take care of you now that you need help. (I’m afraid I said this halfheartedly, not quite sure that I believed it myself.)

Grandma 7: Well, I hope so. I don’t know. (She didn’t say anything for a while, and then abruptly changed the subject by saying, "By the way, how’s the new president in the Women’s Society doing?" We then talked about many superficial things, but little by way of deeper feeling was revealed. I later wondered if I were too hasty in trying to give her reassurance about her family’s love for her.)

Let’s look at what happens in this exchange. With the pastor’s encouragement, Grandma begins to disclose her feelings (Grandma 4). In the pastor’s responses labeled "Pastor 5" and "Pastor 6," he paraphrases what he understands her to be saying, which has the effect of eliciting some of the depth of her anguish. She expresses her resentment over what she sees as her children’s lack of gratitude for all her hard work and sacrifice (Grandma 6). The pastor’s neutral paraphrase has the salutary effect of drawing out her bitterness: Grandma confesses how unbearable it is to be dependent on those who resent her presence.

The conversation shifts precisely when the pastor ceases to paraphrase. Instead, he offers reassurance. He says something he believes to be untrue, that Grandma’s family is pleased to care for her. Notice how this response affects her. After that, she ceases to share anything of emotional significance. The pastor is bewildered and wonders whether he has offered premature reassurance. He is on the right track here. His reassurance effectively silences her and isolates her by implying that her feelings are regrettable and her perceptions distorted. He is unable to stay empathically connected with her.

If the pastor had continued to paraphrase, how might the conversation have been different? How might he have stayed attuned to Grandma through paraphrase when she expressed worry about being a burden? If he had focused on her needs, he might have said, "You want your presence to be a blessing, not a burden." He would thus identify her need to retain her human dignity in a time of helplessness. He would recognize her longing for her family to give to her without resentment. In order to hear Grandma’s unexpressed needs, the pastor would guess at the desires underlying the expressed frustration. Hearing what is bad or uncomfortable or anxiety-provoking, he would translate it into the good that is wanted, the comfort that is sought, the peace that is desired. Once her longings were identified and Grandma felt fully heard, the pastor might offer to mediate between Grandma and her family so that their feelings and needs could also be heard.

I mentioned that productive questions may be open-ended or clarifying. Open-ended questions elicit the person’s story; clarifying questions focus on its essential aspects. The pastor’s first question to Grandma is open-ended: "How are things going today?" A closed question, by contrast, can be answered with a yes or a no (e.g., "Are you having a good day today?"). With an open-ended question, it is helpful to notice when a person offers free information -- that is, information beyond what is specifically requested. Grandma offers free information in her fifth and sixth responses by elaborating on her problems. In doing so, she conveys trust in her pastor. Had the pastor received what she shared with empathy, she might have become aware of her bitterness and of her need for acceptance.

Given her initial reluctance, it is remarkable that Grandma shares as much as she does. Yet as long as the pastor communicates his acceptance through simple paraphrasing, she reveals her distress. It is a sign that the pastor has lost rapport with her when she abruptly shifts the focus of the conversation, as she does after the pastor offers reassurance. She then avoids further disclosure and relates to him more superficially.

By following freely offered information with sensitive questions or empathic listening, the caregiver allows the speaker to set the agenda, so that she may decide how much to share. While it is unethical to urge someone to disclose more than she wishes, exploration usually moves toward some sort of resolution when good rapport exists between listener and speaker. Experienced caregivers take their cue from the speaker without forging headlong into unexplored territory. They seek to walk alongside the other, not 20 steps ahead on the path. Trust is built step by step as the caregiver stays focused on the person’s present feelings and needs.

Inappropriate or nonproductive questions are not attuned to the speaker’s needs. Either they are too intimate for the level of trust established, or they have more to do with the listener’s anxiety than with the speaker’s need. If a daughter is reflecting on her day in response to her mother’s query, for example, and her mother interrupts with a question about a dental appointment, it will likely sever the empathic connection between them. If the mother needs factual information, it would be better not to ask an open-ended question in the first place.

Productive questions can also help to clarify what the person is saying. Sometimes a person will assume that he is being clear, yet the listener finds his words vague or confusing. It is better to ask for clarification than to fill in the blanks with assumptions of one’s own.

If a colleague says, for example, "I didn’t like the way everyone was talking about changing the curriculum at the meeting the other night," several things might need clarification. Which meeting is he referring to? Whom does he mean by his reference to "everyone"? To which specific comments did he object? What was it about those suggestions that he didn’t like? Is he saying that he likes the curriculum as it is and doesn’t welcome any change at all, or only that the specific suggestions were not appealing to him? Focused (or closed) questions would help elicit the specific, concrete information needed for understanding. They would elicit the particulars of the story in terms of place, time, persons involved, and his concrete reactions to what occurred.

The skill of checking perception involves not only grasping another’s verbal content but also noticing his nonverbal and behavioral cues (e.g., tone and rhythm of voice, rate of breathing, facial expression, body position) in order to infer his emotional state. Perception check is more complicated than simply reflecting back the content or the meaning of a speaker’s statement. One might listen to a man speak, for instance, noticing his clenched fists, narrowed eyes, tight jaw, raised voice and rapid breathing. As a way of summarizing what one perceives, one might say, "You seem angry about the way your friend has been treating you." The man may not have said in so many words that he was angry, but his behavioral cues suggest it.

As much as 93 percent of interpersonal communication may consist of the interpretation of nonverbal cues. In a noted article in Psychology Today, Albert Mehrabian claimed that only 7 percent of communication depends on words, whereas 38 percent depends on tone of voice and 55 percent depends on facial expression, posture, eye contact and gestures. Even those who don’t understand a culture’s language are sometimes able to grasp the emotional significance of human interactions by careful attention to nonverbal cues.

Inferring another person’s feelings conveys interest and caring. Even very young children benefit from a sensitive perception check. If a child hangs his head and cries, caring parents will notice and ask whether he is sad about something. Some parents make the mistake of trying to cheer up a sad child. They might say something like, "It’s not really so bad" or "You’ll get over it soon,’ not realizing that they thereby communicate a lack of acceptance of the child’s feeling. It is much more empathic to guess at the child’s feeling: "You seem sad about Katy’s moving away." Such understanding does not dispel the sadness, but it does acknowledge the loss. The child will likely feel his parents’ support and caring through their acknowledgment of his sorrow.

When assessing one’s perceptions of another’s feelings, it is important to guess in a tentative manner, basically asking whether one’s perception is accurate. If one’s tone of voice communicates that one already knows how another feels, it might be heard as an accusation or an imposition. For example, if someone feels ashamed of being sad, she will be likely to deny her sorrow in order to avoid the shame linked to it. In such a scenario, it is important to allow the denial to remain unchallenged. Even if one is convinced that one has guessed accurately, it serves no good purpose to insist on it. The whole point of guessing is to deepen the emotional connection. If the other denies her feelings, it is likely due to fear and defensiveness. Insisting that she feels something she is not ready to acknowledge will only exacerbate her defensiveness.

Skill in perception check is needed when asking about perceived incongruities between someone’s words and his or her tone of voice or body language. For example, if a smiling woman were to say, My best friend died last week," one might be confused. If one gently draws attention to the incongruity -- "I noticed that you were smiling when you told me about your friend’s death" -- it may possibly tap directly into a well of grief. By commenting sensitively on the incongruity, one gives the other space to express her underlying feelings. One communicates an acceptance of her grief and implicitly invites her to share it.

Other instances of perception check might include noting: When does the other seek eye contact and when does she avoid it? What is the emotional effect of sustained eye contact or an averted gaze? How does the other’s tone of voice affect one? Is the speaker’s voice lively or does it sound monotonous, dull or depressed? Does the breath seem constricted and the voice thin and breathy? Or is it full-bodied and resonant? By paying attention to such things, one gets a wealth of information about possible underlying feelings.

One might also notice when and how the speaker changes the focus of the conversation. Did the change of focus deepen the emotional connection or did it bring the conversation to a more superficial level? How might one track the various levels of the conversation? When is the sharing more superficial, and when is more significant emotional communication taking place? How well does one follow the lead of the speaker, facilitating significant sharing but also allowing the speaker to set his own pace?

Other dynamics can be observed as well. When and how is humor used? What function does it serve? Is it used to ease tension in such a way that the emotional connection is sustained? Is it used to shift the focus away from something painful? What happens after the catharsis of shared laughter? Does the speaker return to renewed exploration or does the humor divert the conversation? What is the quality of a period of silence? Is it tense and anxious or is it a restful pause, enabling a fuller connection? Beginning listeners are sometimes uncomfortable with long stretches of silence. Experienced listeners are usually able to rest in the silence while the speaker gets more fully connected to what he is expressing.

Mastering these three skills of good listening -- accurate paraphrase, productive questions and perception check -- fosters the emotional connection between persons. While they presuppose a certain level of basic trust, they also function to further that trust. If a person begins to speak hesitantly and the listener conveys his respect by empathically focusing on her feelings and needs, she has the space to consider sharing further, The more that one receives with care, the more trust will be engendered. As the speaker tells her story, she will gain a deeper emotional connection with herself. She will also gain a new and wider perspective. The listener offers this wider perspective to her not by presenting it to her in the form of advice or information but rather by eliciting it from her by means of empathy and understanding.

Koinonia means empathy at the interpersonal level and prayer at the spiritual level. When caregivers empty themselves of their own preoccupations in order to be fully present to another, they are, in their own small way, following the example of Christ, who emptied himself of his equality with God in order to participate fully in our human plight (Phil. 2). By showing attentive concern to others, pastoral listeners point beyond themselves to the listening God. Such conversations take place not for their own sake, but as a "sign and witness" to the God who takes human need to heart. As members of Christ’s body, pastoral listeners participate in Christ’s attentiveness. When those in the church serve others through listening, they strengthen faith that God is the One who hears every anguished cry.