A close friend is a new grandmother and together we've been enjoying what it means to reacquaint ourselves with the world of little humans. At age two, one grandson is mastering the art of speaking, usually repeating everything that is said to him. "I roll the pink ball," he says questioningly. Then he repeats it again as he indeed, rolls the pink ball. Sometimes he would come up with a question-statement like, "We're going to your house now," looking questioningly at his grandma. If she replies, "Yes, I know!" or "Yes, we are," then the question will be repeated again and again until she gets her reply down in the exact words that her grandson has used. "We're going to Grandma's house now", gives her grandson the reassurance that he is understood.
I was struck by how often something similar happens in Pastor-Parishoner conversations. A parishioner says that she doesn't like the changes at church, or the neglect she feels from the pastor, and then shares the particulars of her concerns. The pastor response acknowledges the individual's difficulty with the changes or the behavior, but we don't always respond by using the very same words the individual uses. In fact, reframing with different words was probably one way I often hoped to bring someone around to a new way of seeing a situation. But watching her grandson, I remembered that the practice of active listening begins with the exact same words that the speaker is using, a step easily skipped over.
It is frustrating when a parishioner says, "I've tried talking to the pastor, but s/he just doesn't listen." Usually we can remember vividly the whole conversation, having replayed it in our own heads if it was a hard one. Yet "S/he doesn't listen" can really mean "I don't feel heard" which is a different concern all together. The next time you find yourself fielding a tough conversation, try using the exact words that the other person is using. Continue with the parroting until the person can say, "Yes, that's right. That's what I'm saying." Then try moving into the reframing process. I know it isn't magic. It won't make the difficulty disappear, but it lays the groundwork needed for the parishioner to say, "I feel like I was heard". For most of us most of the time, that's what we really want anyway, isn't it?