My wife reminds me from time to time that my job is not always to fix things. Sometimes it's to listen.
I thought of that reminder when I read "We come over, and sit" by Aaron R. at Mormon Matters yesterday.
Sometimes when we visit our bishop, we do so seeking counsel, seeking The Answer to our question, and sometimes the bishop can deliver. After all, he has certain gifts and authority by virtue of his calling. Often a wise bishop will, however, just listen.
It took some effort on my part to learn to listen when I was a bishop. Not that I could not listen when someone spoke. I even did well at reflective listening, that is repeating back what someone had said to me to confirm my understanding. But I was, initially at least, subject to my own distaste for silence. I felt a need to fill the gaps in a conversation, and sometimes I'd fill them with my own voice.
My first time as bishop I served in South America, speaking Spanish (not my native language, and not my mission language, either). My stake president counseled that a bishop should spend less than 30% of an interview talking, and the rest of the time he should be praying for inspiration so that when he spoke what he said would be useful. That was good counsel. And it was necessary for me, except my prayer was often that I would understand and be understood.
Fortunately the members of my ward were patient and understanding with me. They helped me with my Spanish skills. They patiently repeated themselves if I did not understand, and were noticeably relieved when they finally felt I did understand.
During another assignment as bishop I had a friend who had a significant issue. The issue doesn't matter. We talked about it a number of times. On one occasion he asked me on the phone if I were speaking as his friend or his bishop. Without thinking about the question or about him, I answered that I spoke as his bishop. As I hung up the phone I knew I had not said the right thing. I finished some other business at the church and then drove the half hour to his home where I found him sullen and not very willing to visit.
We sat in his living room in silence for some time. Finally I said, "I am your friend, too, you know. And I care about what happens to you." More silence. And then he finally began to speak. To share what he was feeling. To share his fears and concerns. To tell his side of the story. He spoke and I listened for about an hour. I had little to offer him except a listening ear. In the end, not much changed, except he knew I had listened to him. And I had learned an important lesson.
When I got home later that day, I found an email, written by him between my phone call and my visit. It said, "A friend would have listened. A friend would have cared about how I felt." And he was right.
As I think back on this experience, I am grateful for the spiritual nudge to go and see him. And to listen.