It was the First Session of my ministry training last night. Eleven of us, called by God to learn more about how to understand, talk to, listen to and help others. It was obviously going to be intimidating getting to know one another, but thankfully, the course tutors had coupled our introductions with an exercise in listening and remembering, so icebreakers weren't that difficult. It was still a little anxiety-making, as well as exciting. But that wasn't what made it so exhausting.
Our first few sessions are to teach us how to not merely listen, but also hear - to practice paying full attention to what someone is saying, how they are saying it, what their body language says, discerning what is the most important thing they are trying to communicate. And so on. For this first session, we were asked to strip it bare - to participate in an enforced exercise where we ONLY listened - we were instructed not to interrupt, engage, interact or converse.
It's not too much to ask me to keep the empathetic looks and noises to a minimum - I consider those an extremely important part of listening to people and didn't cut them out entirely. But, this lesson was to teach us how difficult we may find it to stop jumping in with a response, an opinion, a criticism or a piece of advice. I had to bottle my thoughts up, put them to one side, and merely focus on what was being said. The artificiality of the situation brought home how natural it is for us to banter back and forth, and emphasise that we need to think about the way we respond to what others are telling us. I found this challenging, but recognise it as an important part of going back to basics, before we learn and practice the best ways to respond when people are telling us about their problems.
The worst bit about all this though - and the thing that exhausted me, and everyone else I think! - was that we were asked to RETAIN the information we were told, and repeat the details we remembered to others. It became a bit like Chinese whispers. Some people felt what they said was misrepresented. I had difficulty focusing on the key facts - like how many children someone had - when surrounded by lots of detail. Most of us felt that we were not remembering at all well. My memory fails me at the best of times, particularly, I think, since childbirth, and especially, like now, when I am experiencing pre-menstrual symptoms. It really felt as if I had a mental workout! Our course leaders reminded us that the memory is a muscle - well it looks like mine really needs whipping into shape, because as I progress along my training I will need to recall the important information AND the details. I won't be able to take notes during conversations like I did when I conducted interviews in my former life as a consultant. I will have to rely on my memory.
But, no one said this was going to be easy and I certainly feel that this course is challenging me in a good way. As we were reminded at the start, we are learning how to listen and talk more like Jesus' did; to follow his example in helping others. This is quite a road to follow, and not one that will be without struggles and failures along the way. But I feel now, more than ever, that I am going in the right direction at least, and I have the help of friends who have been praying for me and what looks to be a supportive and understanding group.
One complaint, though - tea was served, but without biscuits! I will have to rectify this and go along with a large pack next week :-)