One of the most powerful and meaningful gifts we can give someone, on a daily basis, is simply being with that person. Every day we are faced with situations where communication is required with another person. It may be with our family members, friends, work colleagues or people we meet throughout our daily routine. Most times, we communicate without giving it much thought beyond what we want or have to say when engaging with another person. However, sometimes we find ourselves engaging with someone who really needs us to simply be with them and to listen.
Active listening requires us to capture and understand the messages that the other person is conveying to us – whether the messages are transmitted verbally or non-verbally, clearly or vaguely. It requires us, as the listener, to be aware of key feelings, key behaviours and key experiences. Active listening requires us to be present in order to hear these messages.
How many times have you found yourself, when engaged in a conversation with someone, getting agitated as you wait for the first gap in the conversation just so that you can put across your own thoughts, feelings or advice? Or, you interject with your own story because you think your experience will make the other person feel better? When you walk away from this conversation, can you honestly say that you heard what the other person had been trying to tell you?
One lesson I learnt a long time ago was that no matter how much I thought my story or my experience was similar to another person, it simply isn’t. A friend and I were having coffee and she was telling me her story about her abusive husband. Without giving it much thought, I started nodding my head in agreement, interjecting her story with my own story. It wasn’t long before I noticed she had gone quiet and there was a look of disappointment on her face. I only realised, much later, that she felt I hadn’t heard her. I always thought I was a good listener, so when I realised that I had actually “hijacked” my friend’s experience with my own experience, I was not honouring her story.
The more I engage with people from all walks of life, the more stories I hear and the more I learn the value of active listening. The outcome? The other person walks always feeling lighter, almost as if a burden had been lifted off their shoulders, simply because I had listened. Through active listening, I am creating a safe space for the other person in which they can unpack their story, sort out their concerns and problems. By “talking it out”, a person will often find their own solutions to the problems they are facing. Or, they may just feel so relieved having been able to speak up and have their story heard. Imagine being the listener who gave someone this gift?
By “being with” them, I was able to be present and I was able to truly listen. I became their mirror in which they can see their own behaviour and attitudes more completely. Active listening serves as a mirror, reflecting things about the other person’s physical self that they would not otherwise see. This helps them to understand themselves better. They can then decide if they want to change what they see.
Active listening also keeps me out of trouble! Instead of trying to impose my own views or understanding of the problems (making assumptions or worse, trying to finish their sentences!), thereby offering advice that may intensify their problem rather than them trying to find a solution that works for them, I choose to listen with both the self and the person, having an awareness of my own feelings being evoked by the other person. I choose to silence myself and rather acknowledge the importance of what is being said. In this way, I am empowering the other person to find clarity from their own experience and giving them the responsibility to find the solution.
By actively listening, I am telling the other person that I care, that I am giving them the dignity to make their own decisions (even if I don’t agree with them), that I have no desire to “fix” them, recognising them as complete and whole beings. By actively listening, I create a space for the other person to discover what is really going on for them, acknowledging that they are not helpless, that they are able to do it for themselves (even if it does take some time). By actively listening, I am letting the other person feel as they do feel, without belittling those feelings in any way. This allows them to discover and understand, for themselves, why those feelings were perhaps sometimes a bit irrational.
I read this little quote the other day:
“Perhaps that’s why prayer works, sometimes, for some people. Because God is mute and He doesn’t give advice or try to fix things. “They” just listen and let you work it out for yourself”.
I challenge you to be the active listener. Try it out. Being with is an empowering gift – give it with all of your heart.