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How to Be a Better Friend With Compassionate Listening

Ms. Meyers got depressed after her son was diagnosed with autism.She realized her sadness came from people's unwillingness to simply listen.

Compassionate listening is an act of selflessness, letting someone talk and purge their pain.

Compassionate listening is an act of selflessness, letting someone talk and purge their pain.

Why Compassionate Listening Matters

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 on them, they wanted 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's often 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:

  1. Put your ego aside.
  2. Be fully present.
  3. Follow up.

To not have your suffering recognized is an unbearable form of violence.

— Andrei Lankov

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 their time to purge pain and sorrow from their 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 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 their own pace and on their 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.

Sitting silently beside a friend who is hurting may be the best gift we can give.

— Unknown

When we're doing compassionate listening, we must have no distractions and no agenda. Let the speaker say whatever they want without interruptions, questions, and judgments.

When we're doing compassionate listening, we must have no distractions and no agenda. Let the speaker say whatever they want without interruptions, questions, and judgments.

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.

With compassionate listening, though, we are required to be fully present with no distractions and no interruptions. It requires us to have the mindset: 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 diagnosis 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 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 diagnosis—taking just 20 minutes out of their lives— I would have felt so much better.

Read More From Pairedlife

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 that I was off course and help me regain some perspective. While this shouldn't happen during compassionate listening, it can be 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

© 2017 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on December 27, 2017:

Wow, scorpio, your words ring so true. I do think we waste so much time and energy trying to get from others what they're unable to give. My mantra these days is: "You'll never experience peace until you accept reality." I needed to adopt that because my mind was always racing with thoughts about how I wish things were different—I wish my mom was more loving...I wish my son didn't have autism...I wish I didn't quit my job." I realized those thoughts were primarily a diversion from thinking about the here-and-now and moving forward in my life. I'm very fortunate today that I finally have some time to slow down and work on ways to improve myself. I know not everyone has that luxury. Thanks so much for your marvelous comments and I love the title of your book!

dashingscorpio from Chicago on December 27, 2017:

"The first law of nature is self preservation".

Oftentimes when someone has a bad medical diagnosis people ask questions not so much because they're concerned about (you) but rather to find out if it's possible for (them) to avoid having the same thing happen to them!

It's a "better you than me" type of world we live in.

Yes people will lend a hand or an ear but (to a point).

If everyone naturally applied compassionate listening there would be no need for therapists! At some point most non professionals revert back to focusing on (their own issues).

A few years back I wrote a book titled: My Cat Won't Bark! (A Relationship Epiphany) and essentially it's about either accepting people for who they are or moving on, as well as learning how to (choose) those types of people we want in our lives.

Our (expectations lead to frustrations) when others don't live up to what (we) expect.

There are two reasons why someone won't give what you ask

1. They don't have it to give. (In other words it's not who they are)

2. They don't believe (you) are worth the effort to give it to.

Expecting someone to "change" for you is the equivalent of expecting a cat to bark. Most people want to be loved and accepted for who (they) are.

We have the option to invest time and energy attempting to turn water into wine or we can seek out those who (already are) what we want and need in a friend or a mate.

Treat people the way you want to be treated isn't rocket science. The sad fact is most people want more than what they're willing to give. That's the world we live in.

Life is a (personal) journey.

Not everyone invests time attempting to improve themselves. However for those looking to do so it's good that articles such as yours, books, and other materials exist.

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