During this time of physical and social isolation, the telephone is returning to its humble origins as a way of having conversations with people that show we care, says Baz McGrath, who teaches pastoral care for Anglicare NSW in churches and theological colleges.
“The World Health Organisation, which we’ve heard a lot about, talks about the pandemic of COVID-19, but about 18 months ago they talked about another epidemic across the world – which was loneliness,” McGrath said during an online service by St James Church Croydon in Sydney’s inner west.
“The WHO talked about how destructive loneliness is for our mental health and for our physical health.
“One of the great steps [to confronting] loneliness is when someone comes into our space and talks to us.
“So, in this instance [of COVID-19 measures], we’ve got to be alert that we’re really under pressure because we’ve had to isolate or be quarantined – and so how are we going to step out into someone’s world and speak to them?”
The art of good telephone calls
The telephone is the only real way to have that conversation, according to McGrath. He believes texting doesn’t work because it is too complicated and nuanced.
But, he warns, there is an art to having a good telephone conversation that helps people feel cared for.
“I think when we really want to feel cared for; we need someone on the other end of the line who just says, ‘How are you going?’ and speaks to us.”
Of course, he points out that in Australian vernacular, saying “how are you going?” doesn’t actually mean anything. We have to find several different ways of asking “how are you going?” so we can get beyond that familiar answer: “Fine.”
“It’s really the art of the question.” – Baz McGrath
McGrath says people can see through someone who is just trying to find out if they’ve got problems and wants to come in as the “rescuer.”
“What we really want is just to have connection,” says McGrath.
“Get the goal set straight off that you don’t ring up thinking ‘I’m going to answer people’s questions’ or ‘I’m going to make them feel better.’
“You have a really simple goal: ‘I just want to get to know this person and make a connection.’
“A lot of people when they ring up, what they’re trying to do is avoid any difficult conversations – or they’re wanting to jolly people along and pop out some platitudes like ‘it’ll all be all right in the end’ or ‘I know we’ve got it all in hand.’”
He says one of the best things to do is just listen to people and hear what’s happening for them.
“It’s really the art of the question. Ringing people up and not saying ‘gee, this must be a difficult time for you’ but saying ‘how are you going?’ And just hearing what they actually say.”
Active listening, not talking with an agenda
In another conversation during St James’ online church service last Sunday, McGrath explained that the goal was the opposite of a telemarketer who wants to coerce you into buying something.
“You don’t go in with an agenda,” advises McGrath.
“You’re not trying to sell them a vision of how they should be. Active listening is giving people pause time.
“So, you ask questions, they might think, and you wait – and they speak.
“It’s giving the other person control and saying ‘you’re important.’
“What we’re trying to do is make people feel comfortable, like they’ve been heard and like they can trust us at some level – and trust is built incrementally, step by step, by us just listening.”
“The key is to be present and really hear that person.” – Baz McGrath
McGrath also warns against the temptation to “throw in a Bible verse.” This could act like an incendiary device and “blow up any confidence that the person may have in you.”
“When we have a conversation, we don’t want to say to people that your faith is [negated] by your fear or anxiety or your worry.”
“We want people to be able to say, ‘yeah, I’m finding this difficult’ – and for us to listen.
“Alternatively, if we ring people up, they might tell us about how much they’re enjoying being at home in the quiet. We just don’t know what we’re going to get, so when we have a conversation, it’s an adventure.”
Finally, he says, set time aside to talk to the person – don’t rush it.
“If you want to have a good phone conversation, don’t [take] five minutes because people feel that rush … The key is to be present and really hear that person.”
“A good phone conversation is often under 20 minutes. We really only need to set aside about 10 to 20 minutes.”
McGrath also encourages us to not multi-task while on the phone. He says the risk with also doing the washing up or cooking, for example, is the person you have called will pick up on you being distracted. They will feel that they’re in second place.
Active listening allows that person, for the time of the phone call, to be “number one.”