I've always been a person that strangers confide in. On buses, on airplanes, in lines at the coffee shop, they open up to me. I've also made my life's work out of telling my own story of mental health issues, trauma, suicide, addictions, and healing/resilience. As a result of telling my story, so many people have come to share their own with me. I hold every story that is shared with me as a precious gift.
What I have learned over the years is that while listening is an art, it's also a skill that can be cultivated. Most importantly, it's an act of love.
Listening is especially important when things are difficult to listen to. I've had many people tell me that they are suicidal. I've had people tell me about family members and loved ones who are in serious trouble. I've heard more trauma stories than I can count. After they have finished telling me their stories, people often say I helped them. But honestly, 99% of the time, all I did was really listen.
What do I mean by really listening? I mean that when someone else is expressing something, we listen with our entire body. We do not rehearse what we are going to say next. We do not formulate “the perfect answer” in our minds. We do not worry about giving a “less-than-perfect” response. We simply become a container for receiving the words of another person.
Listening is receptive, open. It is a container. It is space. In a world that is dominated by the energy of doing, achievement, and accomplishment – listening is considered a “soft skill.” There are a million trainings and workshops you can take on how to become a better speaker – how to persuade others using words, and thus to have power over them – but far fewer on how to become a better listener.
What do I mean by “listening with our whole body?” It means that as we listen, we are aware of the words being spoken but we also simultaneously put our awareness on the physical sensations in our body. Where is the body making contact with the floor or with a chair? Are there areas of tension? We breathe into those areas. In this way, we make our interaction with the other person a listening meditation.
When you notice your mind wandering, or becoming afraid, or rehearsing responses, you simply bring it back to the primary object of awareness: the person speaking.
When it's time for you to respond, again, breathe. It's OK to pause. It's OK to not have the perfect answer. People will always value your vulnerability over your mask. It's OK to admit that you are afraid, or that you don't know what to say. It's OK to ask questions instead of making statements. And if you at all relate, ask the person if you can share a brief snapshot of your own story. It's almost always comforting to know that we are not alone.
Empath vs. Sympathy
Most importantly, the skill of listening is not about “fixing” another person. It's not about “making it all better.” Sure, we all want to help. That's natural. But even with the best of intentions, sometimes we hurt people in the name of helping them. Sometimes we can silence them under the guise of supporting them. I've had many people shut me down who I am sure were certain they were helping me. These include mental health professionals whose job it is to help.
Much of the reactivity comes because someone else's story activates our own pain or discomfort and something inside of us freaks out. We as a society aren't taught how to sit with pain, ours or someone else's. Again, masculine energy tells us we have to fix it, numb it, distract from it.
We don't know how to deal with our discomfort in the moment, so we may shut it down through offering a platitude. “Everything happens for a reason.” “God never gives us more than we can handle.” Or we may try to talk people out of what they are experiencing. “But look at everything you have to live for!”
As paradoxical as it sounds, consider letting go of your agenda to help, and see what it feels like simply to hold space for someone else. To be the container. Try giving another person the gift of your presence. In doing so, it will be easier to be present to yourself, as well.
Presence has a healing quality and a power that cannot be underestimated. The skill of simply being with ourselves and others is one that is deeply needed in these turbulent times we live in.
L. Harris writes on Writing on grief, madness, & menopause. Nonbinary + disabled parent, Yiddishist, archer Contributor: Fat & Queer, We've Been Too Patient. Find out more on their Medium: leahharris.medium.com