Counselors always talk about listening. We make a big deal out of it and will keep making a big deal out of it.

And sometimes we can almost hear the response, “Okay, I got it. Listen before you talk. Blah, blah, blah. Tell people what you heard them say before you say anything, (which sounds weird and no one would ever do that in everyday conversation.)”

If you study counseling with us and have ever thought this—it is our fault.

It’s more than listening

There is more to listening than gathering information and mirroring it back to someone, which, admittedly, can sound quite weird. So instead of beating the listening drum again, consider a small refinement: How can we hear those things that are most important? That is a skill that develops over decades.

This is the difference between skilled and novice counselors. Skilled counselors are able to identify what is most important while novice counselors, though they almost always speak truth, do not always identify the most relevant truth. Gifts help. Some people are more gifted at this than others. But it is a skill, and we can all grow in it.

Whoever hears best will have the most influence

Now add some gravitas. I have heard far too many Christians say that secular therapists “heard them” better than Christian friends, biblical counselors and pastors did. That is certainly a concern to us because generally, whoever hears best will have the most influence. Secular research concurs: when counselees are heard, they are more likely to adopt the basic beliefs of their counselors. Whoever hears best has the confidence of a person and is in a position to revise that person’s interpretations. So as biblical counselors we want to hear best but it is not because we want power over people. No. It is because we want to help influence and reshape our counselees’ interpretations (and ours too) to increasingly conform to the mind of Christ.

Improving your hearing

Here are a few guidelines for hearing what is most important.

  • Humility goes a long way. In order to understand what is most important, you must collaborate. The evidence of humble collaboration will be questions such as these:
    • Are we talking about the things on your heart?
    • What am I missing?
    • When we talk, what seems to be most helpful for you? What seems to be least helpful?
  • Follow the strongest emotions. Secular and Christian counselors both say this, however, we have Scriptural reasons for this pursuit. What others feel is all about what they love, hate or fear, and these get to critical spiritual matters, and there is nothing more important.
  • Follow the relationships. We are people who live in communities and are profoundly affected by those communities. Understanding a person’s relationships and their impact will help you to understand what is important.
  • Make decisions about sin. Sin is certainly important, but you might not target every sin as high priority. Some sins are more important than others. Also, one sin, such as anger, can have different reasons. For example, when anger is about power it usually rises to the top of a counseling agenda because it is important, whether the angry person knows it or not. Other times anger is a cover for fear, in which case you might talk more about God’s words to fearful people rather than anger and repentance.

Hearing what is most important—is a big deal—and you can get better at it.