What Is Compassionate Listening and How Can It Make You a Better Partner or Friend?
Being a Compassionate Listener in Someone's Time of Need Makes a Huge Difference in Their Lives
Why are we human beings often at our worst when our friends and family need us most? If you've ever grieved the loss of a child, pet, marriage, or job, you expected people to rally around you, comfort you, and offer support. When they didn't, you may have been shocked and disappointed. Their neglect may have caused you to lose faith in humanity, become jaded, turn inward, and grow more isolated. That's exactly what happened to me when my 4-year-old son got diagnosed with autism and, much to my dismay, those around turned their backs on me.
That was over 12 years ago and my son is now thriving in high school. But, while he remains unscathed from that period, I still carry the trauma. As part of my recovery from that hurt, I've spoken with others who experienced that same heartbreaking rejection. What I hear from these people repeatedly is how they needed to talk about their grief and release their pain. Instead of friends and family doing a disappearing act, they needed them to be present and hear their sorrow.
That's when I came to pinpoint compassionate listening as the most crucial tool for helping a person in distress. It's key to giving someone the relief they need in a world that often is indifferent to their suffering. Best of all, it's so easy to do and you'll quickly realize how powerful it is. When using compassionate listening, keep these three crucial components in mind and you're sure to succeed:
Sitting silently beside a friend who is hurting may be the best gift we can give.— Unknown
1. Put Your Ego Aside
The most challenging part of compassionate listening is setting aside your ego and letting the speaker talk with few interruptions. Some of us have taken classes on empathetic listening, learning how to use “I messages” and how to restate what the speaker says. But we quickly found the limitations of that approach as it made us feel self-conscious and sound stiff and formulaic. It sidetracked us from what was most important— letting the speaker vent.
With compassionate listening, you don't worry about using “I messages,” rephrasing what the speaker said, giving advice, asking questions, or telling about your personal experiences. It's not about you; it's all about the speaker. It's her time to purge the pain and sorrow from her body. If you have something valuable to say on the matter, this is not the time. Save it for another day.
When my son got diagnosed with autism, I was forced to turn to a professional therapist for help because nobody in my circle would listen. They felt compelled to tell me about their brother, sister, friend, neighbor, or third cousin twice removed who had autism or had a child with autism. They felt obliged to give me trite advice such as “don't worry too much,” “it will all work out,” and “it's all in God's hands.” They felt the need to ask insensitive questions, trying to figure out the root of my son's autism: “Do you think it was caused by his vaccinations? Does it run in your family? Did you have a difficult pregnancy?
According to clinical psychologist, Leon Seltzer, letting someone unload their anguish is one of the greatest gifts we can give. He writes, “Whether it's sorrow, anxiety, anger, or frustrations in general, repeatedly holding in what may need to come out has been related to compromised health—physical, mental, and emotional.” Compassionate listening requires us to behave like a professional therapist, allowing the speaker to reveal the pent-up pain at her own pace and on her own terms. We don't rush the process but let it come out in an organic way, whether through words, tears, or anger. When doing compassionate listening, we must be prepared for raw emotions and not get scared by them.
To not have your suffering recognized is an unbearable form of violence.— Andrei Lankov
2. Be Fully Present
In today bustling high-tech world, we often only give a part of ourselves to friends and family and the other part goes to our cell phone, laptop, computer, or I-pad. Our minds are always torn between what we're doing now, what we just finished doing, and what we're doing next. We rarely live in the here and now. But with compassionate listening, we are required to be fully present with no distractions and no interruptions. It requires us to say, “There's nothing more important on my agenda than being here and listening to this person speak their truth and release their pain.”
When I look back on that period when the doctor told me my son was autistic, I now realize not being heard and supported was more hurtful than the diagnoses itself. With nobody to listen to me, my thoughts became distorted and I began to blame myself for my son's condition. I thought I had done something wrong during the pregnancy or right after his birth. I started to feel guilty and ashamed that I was a failure as a mother. If only I could have verbalized these thoughts to a caring soul, I think I would have recognized how crazy they were. But instead they stayed within me, and I lived in a silent, secret world of disgrace. I became more and more isolated, not wanting to be around other moms and their healthy, normal kids.
I've become a huge advocate of compassionate listening because I now see how it could have made a big difference in my life. If only one or two people had used it with me after my son's diagnoses—taking just 20 minutes out of their lives— I would have felt so much better. It takes courage to listen to someone's suffering and deal with their tears and rage. But those in pain need you to make that effort—to make that connection— and let us know our hurt matters and we matter. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and Zen master, says compassionate listening is a way to let the speaker "empty her heart."
No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.— Theodore Roosevelt
3. Follow Up
When I was in the throes of depression after my son's diagnosis, my thoughts were distorted. I saw my boy as just damaged goods that needed to be repaired, not the unique and loving child he truly was. I was too caught up in his therapies, listening to the professionals telling me what was wrong with him and how to change it. My entire existence was making him better, not enjoying who he was at that moment. It would have been extremely valuable for someone to tell me I was off course and help me regain some perspective. While this shouldn't happen during compassionate listening, it can get accomplished during the follow-up.
The primary goal of the follow-up is to say, “I heard your suffering and I care about your pain.” It's also an opportunity to validate the speaker's feelings: “McKenna, I know you're worried about your son and what the future has in store for you and him. You have every right to be scared. I would feel that way, too.” It's also the time to give your insights on the situation and, perhaps, offer some advice: “McKenna, you're such a caring mother and desperately want what's best for your son. But remember he's your child, not your patient. Take time away from the therapies and just be goofy with him and have fun.” During compassionate listening, you set the foundation that showed you cared. Now, during the follow-up, you're in the perfect position to help the speaker see her situation more clearly and move forward in a positive way.
I Highly Recommend This Book to Learn More About Compassionate Listening and How to Use It in Your Life
This beautiful and simple book, written by the Zen master and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, introduced me to the concept of compassionate listening. It made me aware that, while talking and listening throughout the day, I wasn't doing either one effectively or mindfully. Hanh's words got me to see how powerful communication is and how we need to listen with intent and express ourselves with purpose. This book helped me understand those around me better and helped those around me better understand me.
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© 2017 McKenna Meyers