How To Listen

We all imagine we’re pretty good listeners.  A good friend comes to us with a heavy heart, a story to tell, and our first impulse is to give advice, or to analyze their experience and look for where the friend made a mistake, a wrong turn.  What would we have done in those circumstances?  Sometimes just listening to the story pushes our buttons.

Have you ever watched where your mind goes when you listen to someone’s story?  Most likely it’s going to the past — “how have I resolved this one for myself?” — or the future — “what would be the best solution for my friend?”   Have you ever considered that the only place where change can occur is right now, here, in this present moment?  All of the past solutions, no matter how brilliant they may have been, are of no importance, and may not even apply to the situation at hand.  And even if you could come up with the perfect answer that would let everything fall right into place, that’s really not what your friend-in-distress really needs right now.

Something else your stressed-out friend probably won’t appreciate is a hand on the arm and a “there there, dear, it’s going to be all right.”

So, what’s a good friend to do?  Just sit still and do nothing?  No, I’m not suggesting that.

  • Stay in the now moment.  Feel what’s going on inside your own body.  Take a deep breath now and then.  If you begin to feel tense, or angry, or confused, or any other sensation in your body, it could be that your friend is feeling that, too.  No it’s not “being a good friend” to take on your friend’s issues.  They’re not yours.  Taking them into yourself is like stealing, and you’ve got enough of your own, so let your friend keep his own stuff.
  • Listen. Your friend mostly just wants to be heard, so let him know you’re present, here, listening and hearing, tuned in to what he’s saying.  Do this by maintaining eye contact (in some cultures), by following along with the story, by summarizing the main points from time to time, reflecting back to him.  “So A happened, then B, and C; is that right?”
  • It’s already there.  Know that your friend has all the answers inside, all the wisdom s/he needs, all the brilliant flashes of insight, everything.  Your friend may just need the time and space enough to keep talking and listening for her own answers.  You can help by simply sitting with your friend and holding open a safe space for listening.  You don’t need to do a thing — simply actively listen, summarizing from time to time.  Your friend’s answer and solution will emerge for herself in time. This is the time to relax and breathe and trust in your friend, trust in yourself, trust in this process.
  • Choice.  Eventually your friend may begin repeating her story, or getting confused or anxious or upset.  This is where an active listener can be very helpful.  “So, you’ve said A, then B, and C happened as a result.  What would you like to see happen?”  Or “What would you like to do about that?” This gives your friend a chance to listen to how she’s come across to you; is this the story she’s telling? Is this how she really wants to be seen and heard and understood? She may tell you you missed something; she may add something in; she may tell you you got it all wrong. That’s okay. Let her change her story until she’s happy with it, and let your friend contemplate what she’d like to do about it.

Continue to stay in the now moment by breathing, following the story, connecting to how your body is feeling, and refusing to be put into the role of “expert.” Your friend is her own expert; you are not. You are creating a safe space for your friend to connect to her deepest inner wisdom.

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