Listening through the Adversities
When people used to ask me how I could stand listening to people’s problems all day long, I always replied, quite truthfully, that I wasn’t actually listening to the problems. I was listening to people’s courage and tenacity in coping with those problems, supporting the spirit and deep intentions of people to not just solve problems but to come to love and trust themselves that they could.
Even though I’ve officially retired from my formal role as a licensed psychotherapist, I still spend a lot of time listening – carefully – to people wrestling with how to manage financial woes, insomnia, estrangement from a beloved son, the existential anxiety triggered by the daily news.
I listen, carefully, to my neighbors, my friends, my colleagues, to readers of this newsletter, because I care. And because I know that feeling listened to is one of the most empowering experiences people can have, no matter what adversity they are coping with.
In his recent webinar Surviving Storms: Finding the Strength to Meet Adversity, poet/writer Mark Nepo spoke to the power of being listened to. He likened the role of a teacher to being a greenhouse, not instructing or leading but simply providing a container of warmth and light where each plant [person] could grow as was its nature to grow.
And I find wonderful guidance to this kind of nurturing listening in the wisdom of 19th century British novelist Dinah Craik:
Ah, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person. Having neither to weigh out thoughts nor words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take them and sift them; keeping what is worth keeping and, with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away.
You can provide this kind of honoring a person’s truth and true nature simply by learning how to anchor in your own authenticity and then looking for and trusting the common humanity connecting all of us through all of the differences, diversities, sometimes even seeming incompatibilities.
A lifetime of practice, yes, and it’s done moment by moment, person by person.
I’ll be teaching clinicians many core listening skills my upcoming training in The Resilience Mindset at Cape Cod Institute, July 3-7, 2023. You can practice the exercise below on your own at any time.
Exercise: Deep Listening
The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. . . . A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words. -Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.
When we shift our attention toward listening, our whole world changes. Learning to listen is equal to learning to love. – Ruth Cox
1. Recruit a partner (a friend or colleague) to do this exercise with you. You can switch roles later, if you wish.
2. From the list of questions below, or similar questions of your own, tell your partner which question you would like to answer first.
What brings you joy in your life?
What brings you sorrow?
What worries you now?
When have you found courage in dark times?
What are you grateful for?
What are you proud of?
3. Your partner asks you the questions, listens quietly to your answer, not commenting but thanking you for your response, and repeats this process, asking the same question, for about five minutes.
4. Answer the question as honestly as you can. Notice how it feels to be listened to and received. Let your inquiry deepen with each repetition of the question.
5. When you have finished answering the first question, pause to reflect on your experience of yourself and of the exercise.
6. Continue to answer as many of the questions as you wish. Then you can also switch roles with your partner, starting with whichever question they would like to answer first.
7. When you and your partner have answered as many questions as you each wish, debrief together. What was it like for you to share your answers? What was it like to be listened to? What was it like to hear your partner’s answers?
The repetition of the questions allows your brain to delve more and more deeply into them and produce richer answers. The “little and often” practice of inquiry allows you to bring the processing of your brain into conscious awareness, creating a new, clearer sense of yourself and your resilience. The safety you experience in doing this exercise strengthens the brain’s social engagement system for both you and your partner. Being listened to and received deepens your trust in yourself, in your partner, and in the process of relating.