I was (re!)watching an old episode of Scrubs (a medical comedy TV show) and the doctors admitted a patient for poisoning, but couldn’t find a source – not in her stories, not in her home. She was just an anxious but happy, people pleasing patient who was always trying to be nice, make conversation and keep smiling. The episode proceeded to show how the doctors were not able to spend much time with her (or any one patient for that matter) and needed to move on to other things. They discharged her. Only later did they realize she had left them several clues to indicate she was depressed and the poison was an attempt at suicide. She didn’t come out and say it, she didn’t cry, she didn’t sit silently in the dark. But she said, “well if I don’t see you again…”
To listen is to care. And to find someone who listens to you, who can listen to you, is a rare and precious thing.
To listen to someone is to “just listen”, to let them hear the voices in their head aloud, and not interrupt with anything other than some supportive, gentle questions or expressions of the face and body that urge the speaker to go on. These questions and expressions exhibit a genuine curiosity for the story of the other, for knowing their perspective, their opinions – no matter how much we disagree with them. We can say, “oh, how come?” or “wow, I wonder why that happened?” or “I’m sorry you’re going through this” or even “I really don’t know what to say but please continue” or absolutely anything that conveys our attention towards them.
It’s about cultivating an ethos of quieting up (inside and out) and letting your quiet enable and encourage the other person to be / speak free and uninterrupted for a clear while.
The idea is to suspend our thoughts and judgments. Personally, I find that to be a bit of an unattainable ideal (like truly unconditional love). But what I do find absolutely doable is holding back our thoughts and words while someone is sharing, and cataloging them to be shared at another time.
This doesn’t mean that we must agree with them, or convey that we’re entirely onboard with their thoughts or behaviors. It just means that we’re giving them a space to express, share and maybe reorganize their thoughts and emotions. Once done, there can always be a new space created for a more active dialog about all that was shared.
The focus here is on empathic listening as a form of being there for someone and exhibiting care.
We underestimate just how much we can do for the other by listening to them.
The validation we give to the other by listening shows that they mean something to us, that their story means something to us. In turn, they are able to gain some clarity by sharing their flowing thoughts with someone who is listening. It gives them the space to freely explore all that’s on their mind. They can, quite literally, empty their minds and then, with our help (the listener), pick up each thread and place it back in their minds in a manner that is more coherent to them. Their thoughts stop being chaotic and take a manageable form because you helped create a space where they could be purged, and then reassembled and then reabsorbed. It’s like a cluttered drawer. To organize it, one efficient way is to empty everything out, and then pick up one thing at a time and put it back where it’s best accessed or used, and discard the things that don’t make sense.
Listening well to someone means that we have to suppress one near-universal, almost-always-controllable urge: giving advice.
We love it! All of us like to believe that we can solve the other person’s problems through our words, or that we would do things differently if we were in their place, or some similar version of this. We can also travel to a space where we think the person brought the problems upon themselves, or the sad extension of this – they deserve it. I have also personally reached spaces of severe helplessness in listening to someone but there seemed such little hope in their words and situation that I thought it might be best if we all just gave up. I stopped distinguishing between their helplessness and mine, and got lost in my purpose. My purpose was to listen, not solve their problem. If I had that clarity, I could have then listened peacefully, without the agitation of solving and moving on. This agitation or boredom or restlessness is very easily picked up by the person sharing and will stop them from being able to be open. Also, simple bottom line, it feels terrible to share and not be heard.
Listening also needs time. Sometimes a lot of it, sometimes just a few minutes. Account for it if you’re trying to be there for someone. Try not sneaking peeks at your watch – people catch on.
Listening applies to ALL relationships.
Listen to people around you who think are trying to reach out. Your attitude, your expressed intention to wanting to listen to them will in itself be encouraging enough to get people to open up. Listen to children – they have the weirdest but sometimes the darkest things to say and a learned belief that no one will listen (I think over time, lots of people develop this belief). Listen to the people working in your homes. Listen to friends, partners, parents, ageing grandparents.
It does seem like a lot of psychological and physical effort to listen. It really is. And don’t be surprised if you’re tired after listening to someone. It can be exhausting, and it’s important to recognize when we don’t have the physical or psychological energy to listen to someone. We have to choose to listen to someone, devote time and energy towards it; that’s better done when we know we can, and when we know we want to.
Sometimes I [naively?] think that if we just listened with care, we might solve a lot of the world’s problems.