Last time I wrote about how each one of us is a story, that you are the author of your story and that you have to make the choices that will determine whether or not your story will be a good one.
But that made me think of something else: we all have an innate need to tell our stories. And more importantly, we all have a need to have our stories listened to.
That’s probably one of my biggest frustrations in life: I can’t find anyone to listen to my story. See, I’m a natural listener. If I sit next to someone on a bus or stand behind someone in a queue, they just start talking to me. Nothing too personal…at first. But I can’t help listening – I’m naturally good at it and I’ve been trained as a counsellor which merely honed my existing skills – and before long they’re spilling their guts to me.
Okay, so it doesn’t happen that often with strangers, but I regularly find myself in conversations with friends, colleagues and relatives where I don’t really get a chance to say anything. It starts off natural enough, but moments later I find myself nodding, and prodding, and reflecting, and sometimes they start sharing some pretty intense stuff. And I’ll realise, now I have to keep listening because now they’re in charge of this conversation and it’ll be rude of me to try and steer it to myself – any listeners reading this will understand what I’m saying.
At times I would call someone, or start an online chat because I really have the desire to just talk to someone, to get something off my chest, but it would be as if that person had been waiting for my call – I would say ‘Hi’ and they’d respond with some mind-blowing personal revelation and once again I’d find myself stuck in the role of listener while on the inside I’m screaming, ‘When will you shut up and listen to me for a change?!’
But a listener will never interrupt someone, even if he or she is slowly dying on the inside. My lecturer in counselling said something to us as undergraduates that, I think, natural listeners know almost instinctively: Listening is the single greatest act of service you can do for another human being. To rephrase an earlier statement, our greatest need is to tell our stories and have someone really listen to them. Listeners know this, which is why we will listen to your story even if it means we don’t get to tell our own.
This makes listeners very lonely. We tend to have many people leaning on us for support, looking to us for encouragement, but we seldom have someone to do the same for us. I am so desperate for someone to listen to my story, to encourage me to tell it, and to tell me afterwards that they believe in me, and that I can make a success of things. But I can’t find anyone.
I guess that’s one of the main reasons why I started blogging – to tell my story in the hope someone would hear it – but all of us on the blogosphere are so concerned with getting our own voices heard, we seldom manage to hear the voice of another.
The problem, as I see it, is that we don’t have enough listeners. I’ve only encountered a handful in my life, and all of them I could see without having to ask that they were equally desperate for someone to listen to them for a change. You might be lucky enough to have a listener in your life, but chances are you don’t even notice it – you just use him or her when convenient and move on. It’s time for that to change.
If listening is the greatest service you can do for someone, then all of us need to start doing it. And none of us have an excuse because listening is a skill that can be acquired.
The first thing you need to do is to shut up. It’s impossible to listen while you’re talking (and that includes thinking about what you’re going to say next while the other person is still speaking). Listening requires that you forget about yourself – your needs, your opinions, the funny cat video you saw online this morning, that juicy piece of gossip you so much want to share. Listening is focusing on the other person because their story is important…important to you.
You also need to realise that listening and hearing are not the same thing. Hearing happens every time sound waves enter your ears. Listening is something you do. It is using your face, your body language and verbal prompts (words and sounds) to show the other you are interested and to encourage them to keep talking. It’s also paying attention to the other’s body language, facial expression and tone of voice, not just their words.
Most important, listening is showing empathy. Empathy is showing understanding for someone else’s emotions (to be distinguished from sympathy where you actually share in their emotion). The easiest way in which you can show empathy is through reflection: Let’s say the person shares something difficult they went through. Respond with something along the lines of, “That must have been tough.” The person will most likely either respond with, “Yes, it was,” and carry on, or say, “No, not really, but…” and explain more clearly. Either way, you’ll have shown that person that you’re really listening and that you’re really trying to understand what they’re sharing with you, and that’s way more than what most people usually get.
And lastly, don’t try to fix things. Don’t give advice. You’ll think you know how to solve the other’s problem, and you may even be right. But the other person doesn’t need fixing; they need someone to listen to their story, to tell them they’ll make it in the end.
I want to ask you to become a listener. Once a week, make the choice to listen to someone instead of speaking. Put your own need to be heard aside for an hour or two and give someone else a chance. If you realise you have a listener in your life that you have been abusing using on a regular basis, next time you meet him or her, ask them how they’re doing (and really mean it) and listen to their answer no matter how long it takes (because take it from me, they’ve done it for you several times already).
It is my firm belief that the more we learn to listen to each other, the less angry this world of ours will become.
Take up the challenge. Do the greatest service it’s possible to do for another person.