I’ve been thinking about what to put into this post for a week but have struggled a bit in working out what it is I’m trying to say exactly. I suspect there will be more than one post as I try to tease this out.
Over the last 5 years one of the most significant things I’ve learned is the importance of listening. In all of the important roles I’ve adopted at different times (researcher, manager, volunteer, artist, partner, daughter, sibling, friend) listening has been an important part of what I do (most of the time more so than any of the ‘talking’, truth be told). There has been a growing public conversation about the importance of talking in the mental health world in the last few years. There have been significant efforts to encourage people to reach out, to talk, and these are really important. There are multiple platforms through which we are able to connect, digitally or otherwise, but often little thought is given to the ‘listening’ that this assumes. For someone to reach out and actually find some comfort there needs to be a Listener. I think for these efforts to be truly successful we need to develop not just the capacity of our community to talk, to express themselves, but also the capacity to listen. And ‘just listening’ isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Listening well is actually an important skill. I once had a boss who huffily told me ‘pah, listening. What is listening? I listen’. In doing so interrupted me mid-sentence and failed to hear the complete thought I had at that moment about the importance of being heard. This was not a good example of listening. During the past few years I have done some training on my listening skills, and volunteered for a time to have long, careful conversations with people who are suicidal. Here are a few things I have learned:
- Everyone has one infuriating friend who will continually tell you the same story over and over, or make the same point over and over. Think for a moment. Is it possible that this person feels like they have never truly been heard?
- Listening well is an act of mindfulness. Truly listening to someone requires you to be present in the moment. It requires you not to sit there agonizing over what clever witty thing you are going to say next.
- It’s ok not to know what to say next. Silence can sometimes be your friend.
- It’s ok to ask ‘I know you are going through something. Are you ok? do you want to have a cup of tea, a little talk?’
- It’s ok not to have any answers, to not know what to advise. Often people, both in their good times, and in their bad times, aren’t asking for advice, they are asking to be heard.
- Listening well, listening carefully to a person without a personal agenda, is an act of profound kindness.
On this blog I talk a lot about creativity and arts practice, and maybe this post seems a little left of field. But in my own arts practice I have found listening to be an important part of it.If you listen to other people well you will inevitably end up learning something interesting about the world around you, or about yourself. Listening is fundamentally rewarding, in that it adds richness and depth to your understanding of the human experience.