I was about thirty five years old when I first managed a large group. There were more than two hundred production workers. A couple dozen supervisors. Four section managers. I had managed small groups of engineers and technicians before that, but it was a whole new world with all those people and the layers of management.
I was able to lead and to make some difficult decisions. Yet I became more and more aware that I had nowhere near all the answers for the questions that people asked me. I was often uncomfortable when folks came to me and asked for my help. At times I found I was rendered speechless. All I could do was listen. I could offer no easy fix nor even a promise of an eventual solution.
I was astonished to learn that most people were very grateful just to have me listen to them. It was a revelation. As an engineer I had always felt that unless I offered a fix or at least some sage advice, I had failed. Not so. Actually, some of the people who appreciated my listening the most were the ones whom I couldn't offer anything more than my sympathy.
Almost a quarter century has passed. I have come to understand that many people value a listening ear far more than they value my idea for how to make things better. Often, the best thing I can offer is a simple affirmation that the situation being described is a difficult one. "I am sorry to hear that." "You must be hurting" "That would be hard for anyone". There are even times when simply nodding my head and holding someone's gaze as they pour out their tale, seems to be valued the most.
It has taken many years to learn to listen patiently. I am still far to quick to jump in with suggestions, plans of action, and the like. But I am learning.
When I listen well, I can often tell that I have encouraged the one speaking. They say so. Or their countenance lightens at least a little. There are other times when I really don't know what the other person is thinking. I know more and more that it is best for me to have faith that a listening ear offers encouragement, regardless of what I am seeing right then.
I also find that as I listen better, others are more likely to open their hearts and share very deep pain that they are bearing. Consequently, I have become aware that virtually everyone is struggling with some dilemma, some hurt, or some fear. There are times when I am overwhelmed by the knowledge that so many are struggling so much.
Now I believe I must learn to grieve with others. And even as I grieve, I can rejoice. I can rejoice that I have been given the opportunity to listen. I can rejoice in knowing that God cares deeply for the person who is hurting.
Decades pass. Bit by bit, I learn a little more about listening. I gain some confidence that I am encouraging. I accept the fact that I will grieve. I know a little more about rejoicing.