I recently mentioned to co-worker that people often share with me their sad and painful stories. Some are asking for advice, some just want the ear or shoulder of an objective listener. The common thread, however, is that each person who shares does so because something is heavy on their heart. Whatever the problem, they’ve experienced suffering, and sometimes for a long time.
This even happens with strangers. I might make casual conversation with someone standing in the same line as me, and they’ll tell me something very personal, usually followed by “I don’t know why I told you that.” When I casually said to Cassie - “maybe I have one of those faces”, my friend said “what do you do with all of that pain? I would just cry, I could’t do it”.
It reminded me that when I first began on the monastic path, when people would share their problems and pain with me, I didn’t know what to do with it. After a time, it sort of…filled me up. Until I was a mess of unresolved issues. The stories I heard. My own frustration and anger and sadness on behalf of those who shared with me. With reminders of my own pain that were set off by what I heard and how I dealt with it.
When Cassie asked “what do you do with all of that pain”? I realized that it doesn’t affect me in the same ways that it used to. I attempted to unpack what the difference is between then and now. I made a list.
The first thing I realized is that to be an effective listener, I had to understand that their problems are not about me. It’s not an invitation for me to share in a similar way. I am the sounding board, the mirror, an ear. When my Mom was recovering from her whipple surgery, I was visiting her one day and we were alone in her hospital room. I was sitting quietly, reading, and when she would talk I’d engage with her, and when she didn’t want to talk I would just read. She told me that her visitors mostly would listen to her for a minute or two and then launch into some terrible thing that had happened to them. She said “I’m the one who needs help. It’s so hard to listen to all of that when I’m hurting.” I learned that keeping the focus on the other person helps them feel comfortable sharing.
To take this a bit further, I try to practice deep listening. One quote that I use again and again is by Stephen Covey “The problem is that we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply.” We’ve all had those moments where someone is speaking and we’re thinking about what we’re going to make for dinner, or that we can’t forget to get light bulbs. For me this usually happened during corporate staff meetings. But I was the worst offender at listening to reply. I thought that by sharing my awful thing, I was commiserating, I didn’t understand that the person speaking to me wasn’t feeling heard.
In addition to helping the sharer feel heard, deep listening helps the listener by not conflating your stories. What I mean by this is that if in the middle of someone sharing with me, I start talking about my awful thing, now it’s not a supportive sharing time where we’re talking about one person’s issue. It’s become a conversation, and my awful thing is intertwined with theirs. For me, this bound it all together in a confusing painful mass of problems that it took months to unravel. We can’t feel another’s pain. We can only feel our own pain, over and over again. Deep listening keeps this from happening.
There are many good active listening skills, but this isn’t about that, it’s about how to keep another’s pain from building up inside you, so I have just one more skill to share.
We can’t be attached to the other’s outcome. When we think “oh, if they would only do this” or “it would all be ok if they took this action, I’m going to tell them what they should do and that will help.” We make the conversation about us. We stop listening. Once we begin problem solving, we’ve put a lid on what they’re saying. Now we know if they would just do what we say it would all be ok for them.
The practice here is to simply listen and reflect back what we’re hearing. Not to try to fix it. Not to give advice that we know will make it all better. That’s not helping. That’s ego. Now we’re attached to their outcome. We’ve moved beyond what is to what we think should be.
I spoke a few weeks ago about how we need to realize that we can’t fix another’s problems. We help by listening, but fixing the actual issue is beyond our scope.
I try to understand what I can do that actually helps and let the rest go. I think what’s helped me the most is not trying to give advice. No one wants unsolicited advice. It’s not helpful and as I stated before, it just makes the conversation about me and not the person who needs help.
The short answer to Cassie’s question “what do you do with all of that pain?” is that I’ve become a more effective listener, and it doesn’t fill me up anymore. I’m not wracked with frustration because they won’t take my advice. I haven’t bound their pain up with mine. And I understand that the most effective gift we have to offer is the simple kind gift of our presence.