Several years ago I took part in a training on spiritual direction.

One of our assignments was to sit with two other people in our class and practice listening. One person was to talk about whatever she wanted to, and the job of the other two people was to listen.

We could not advise, quote Scripture, offer answers, or pray out loud. For a group of Christians, this was not an easy assignment.

Our only job was to listen, and our only words were to be questions with the sole purpose of learning something we didn’t know about this person and their experience. If the words we were about to say had a period at the end, we were not to say them.

We were only allowed to be curious.

We sat in our triad and someone else went first. As she spoke, I recognized within myself the desire to tell her things, to add my own perspective, to relate somehow with her experience by telling a story. But I followed the directions and asked questions instead.

It went on that way for about twenty minutes or so, and afterward I noticed I felt less pressure at the end of our conversation than I had at the beginning. I also noticed our storyteller looked relaxed and relieved.

Then it was my turn. I don’t remember exactly what I shared, but I do remember how I felt as they listened and started to ask questions about my experience, about the people in the story I was telling, about how I felt about it all.

The tears came unexpectedly and the feeling of relief and connection followed soon after.


Two things I remember after that experience.

First, I remember my two partners told me they felt like they hadn’t helped me at all.

Second, I felt like I had been heard in that conversation more than almost any conversation I had ever had.

Perhaps we’re all guilty of over-estimating our good advice and underestimating the value of connection.

People don’t need a fixer, they need a journeyer. I know this because it’s what I need, too.

I’m learning the power of simple, curious questions. You can learn a lot about a person that way. You can also learn a lot about yourself.

Last week, a friend asked me a question as I sat in her sunroom, staring over her shoulder at the small lake behind her house. I was there for some perspective, some encouragement, and to be reminded that I don’t have to control my life, nor can I.

“What is the next right thing?” she asked, not really expecting an answer. But it’s a question she offered for me to carry home, to ask myself when I feel my soul start to spin out of control.

The next right thing might be checking the mail.

The next right thing might be saying goodbye.

The next right thing might be making lunch, taking out the garbage, writing the check, feeding the dog, reading a chapter of that book.

The next right thing might be to take a nap.

Asking myself about the next right thing helps me to stay in this moment, helps me to be specific, helps me to get present to what is going on around me and within me without rushing too far into the future. Asking others curious questions honors their experience and lets them know they’re not alone.

It’s important to ask yourself some curious questions, too. So here we are in July, already halfway through 2015. Here are a few curious questions for your soul. Perhaps you’ll talk a little time to listen without an agenda:

  • What is one thing bringing you joy today?
  • What is a disappointment you are experiencing today?
  • When you think about the past six months, when did your soul feel most awake?
  • When did you experience a sorrow or regret?
  • For what is your soul most longing?

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  • Tracy L

    I love this, two great reminders in one post! So often we want to share by talking about our experiences but listening is so important and validating to the person we are with. And as a person who struggles to stay in the present (versus looking ahead), I love the question What is the Next Right Thing? With God handling the big stuff, all we need to do is focus on the next thing.

  • Bev @ Walking Well With God

    How eye opening!! What a poignant lesson on the true value of listening more and talking less. When Jesus met Mary and Martha who were grieving at the grave of Lazarus, He didn’t give advice, quote scripture, or share a lesson… He didn’t say a word. Instead, He wept with them. If Jesus is the greatest validator of feelings, and I want to be more like Him, I would do well to follow His example. Wonderful post!

  • Bhive

    This article was very timely for me. My whole family and friends need to read this too! I forwarded this to several friends!
    What a gift we could give to others by truly Listening!!
    Thank you for helping me understand an area that I need to work on!!! I’m also a homeschool mom who has little time alone so sometimes feel overwhelmed by all that has to be done. This is good advise. Focus on what’s next. I actually did this before having children, but somehow lost track and need, with God’s help to pray for direction & peace in each moment. Thank you!!! Blessings ;)

  • Dana Butler

    Emily this is such a gift. Thank you. So so much.

  • Betsy Cruz

    Emily, this is a lovely post! My husband and I are doing “mentoring” with a younger married couple, and our topic is listening! For 3 weeks, we’re meeting to talk (or HEAR!) about listening. This rings a bell with my heart today, and I definitely want to share this with my husband.

  • Anna

    I read this as I walked upstairs to take a nap, feeling a bit guilty as my husband is also tired. The next right thing… Take a nap thank you for the freedom you have just given me, also some questions to ponder about my soul when I wake. Many Blessings back at you. Xx

  • Abby

    Emily, I appreciated this post so much. I have been both the giver and receiver of unwanted advice, “fixing” and the like, and sometimes we just need to know we have a friend who is there, who isn’t going to leave no matter what. Thank you for sharing this. My mind goes to Job, whose friends sat with him for days not saying anything after he lost everything he had. I think that was more comfort to him than anything they could have said. Lovely post.

  • Paula Lloyd

    Wow. I needed this. I really needed this reminder that I can’t control everything and maybe I need to step back.

  • Lana

    Joy today? I don’t know, my heart is too heavy.
    disappointments today? A broken relationship that feels hopeless and is causing me to not have my grandbaby this week as was originally planned.
    When was my soul most awake? Still thinking on this one.
    sorrow? The death of a new grandbaby this year that was born but never took his first breath.
    What is my soul most longing for? Forgiveness

    Powerful questions today…so much to ponder on today. Thank you for bringing this to us today…
    What is the next right thing for me to do…..I think for right now it is to get up and clean my kitchen…that’s about all I have in me right now…but I will keep asking myself that question all day….

  • Jamie S. Harper

    Thank you for asking me curious questions. I love to be asked them in a way that allows me all the time I need to ponder their answers. And yes to just listening. What a good word. Always enjoy your words.

  • Kelli

    Thank you Emily. This is medicine for my soul. You’ve helped me clear out some fogginess that wouldn’t go away.

  • joni

    Trying settle in the rest of waiting and seeking God. Wonder if i am on tract according to Gods timing. Have missed something in my wait or has been wasted cuz i havent got it yet or right? Asking myself the hard questions, trying listen for the answers.

  • pastordt

    And this is the heart of spiritual direction — and real friendship, too. Thanks, Emily for writing it out in your usual lovely style.

  • Jodi Koepke

    This has me longing to be that listener for others and to find someone who will do the same. Thank you for being a voice bringing gentle correction into the way I do relationships. I also loved thinking through those questions. Some were so easy to answer, some I don’t yet have an answer for. I will also definitely be using “What is the next right thing?”.

  • Beth Williams

    This is great! To often people don’t listen, really listen to each other and are quick to offer advice or scripture to solve the problem. There are times when we just want to “vent” our frustrations and be heard.
    What is one thing bringing you joy today? Spending time with in-laws and not having to deal with my aging dad’s dementia and psych issues.
    What is a disappointment you are experiencing today? One disappointment is having to quit a good job in order to care for my aging dad. Wish I was able to keep that job, but God knows best.
    When you think about the past six months, when did your soul feel most awake? The last few days at work. I was kind of happy to be out of that environment. The fact that certain co-workers gave me a little party and took me out to eat. One told me I could ask her for help in the future. Good to know people cared!
    When did you experience a sorrow or regret? From late 2013-2015 I regretted going into medicine and not staying in clerical work. Nothing ventured nothing gained. I started disliking the way medicine was going.
    For what is your soul most longing? For peace and contentment. For my dad to be “ok” without much more dementia, sundowners; episodes.
    Blessings :)

  • Theodore Great

    Sometimes, we underestimate the luxury of being listened without being interrupted, and just to listen to others :) For those curious questions are the things we have to ask ourselves in a timely basis just to reflect our life and be grateful to God in every conditions in life :)

  • Kendra Burrows

    This is great stuff, Emily! I think the asking questions part is the answer to dealing with someone I’ve been having difficulty changing, er, understanding, lately. Although I’m wondering what question to ask besides, “tell me more about that,” which is not actually a question. This will be challenging but so worth it, I think. Thanks for sharing!

  • dukeslee

    I’m broken open by this. You know why? I’m a question asker, and I feel like I rarely have anything to offer of value — but questions. This affirms me in so many ways. Thank you, Emily. This is a solid word.

  • Doris Swift

    Emily, loved this! I admit, often times I’m guilty of interjecting when someone shares their struggles. In an effort to show how I can relate, I interject my personal experiences. This is a great reminder to keep my mouth shut, and my ears open. Thanks for sharing these beautiful words, and a great reminder for all of us.

  • Kristin S

    Emily, you are a fantastic listener and question-asker.

  • Suzi Snell

    Sometimes this is all I need… Just someone to listen. Thanks for reminding me how important it is to listen and not always put in my “two cents”.. “What is the next right thing?” I am posting that at my desk and at home as a reminder to not look so far ahead and just think about what is next! One minute at a time! God is Awesome, Always!!

  • Yvonne

    ANOTHER great timely post today from Thanks Emily! I’ve been attempting recently, to be less impulsive and reactive in conversations so your post is really confirming. Just love the part about ‘what is the next right thing?’ and how it helps us to be specific. Sometimes it can be just taking one step in the hope that the other foot will follow in the right direction. Love to you all in Jesus.

  • Yvonne

    ‘Jesus wept’. Shortest verse in the bible speaks volumes Bev. The tears of God on the face of a man. What a wonderful empathic Lord and Saviour we have. O to be more like Him in the moment. Thankful for you, my sister in Jesus.

  • cornelia

    Excellent! So true. Just being there, wondering, asking, listening. In the past, my husband has tried to fix situations I’ve shared with him, and he has learned to just listen too, and ask questions; he says he realizes this now. It’s an art, listening, truly hearing, asking questions. With the phone turned off.

  • Marty

    Love this post so much! Thank you!

  • Elise

    Yes…I do need to shut my mouth sometimes and just listen. I have a few girlfriends who I do this with. Once a year we meet for a weekend. There are about 15 of us. Breaking up into smaller groups has been discussed. But since we now see so little of each other as life has brought us farther apart, we all want to hear everyone’s updates. Sometimes they are just that, updates. But usually at least one member of the group has had a really hard year, a difficult loss, a marriage break up, a drastic change in their lives. Each person gets about 20 minutes to share their story. And then the group gets 10 minutes to ask questions…no advice. Then we pray over that person for 10 minutes. It takes a long time for us to get to everyone, but that’s why we spend the weekend together!

  • Bonnie Stoltzfoos

    Such a great post. Thanks for the reminder to listen. I want to start putting that into practice today… not needing to add my own perspective/experience in.