“Well, maybe it wasn’t that bad…” A note about Empathetic Listening

Usually, a story must first of all be told in order to deeply discuss it. Like watching a movie, you analyse it with your company afterwards, not during the screening. To do so during may seem rude or detract from the other person’s experience. When it comes to mental health, not just a story is told, but a wound is left vulnerable. It’s a tough story to tell, and they are trusting you to listen.

To listen empathetically is to hear what the Speaker is saying and trying to put yourself in their shoes by asking why.

A danger exists in subtle ways your body language, tone and voice come together when a person explains their experience. The Listener often tries to match the story to their own experience (“that sounds challenging sure, although I see it differently”). Meant as a respectful gesture of acceptance or empathy, it can feel very belittling to the speaker, sometimes even patronising. An experience is the person’s, it is not yours. All feelings are valid, no matter how comparatively big or small to yours,  or regardless of how you would react in their situation. 

Shocking or disturbing content may be shared by the Speaker with the absolute fear of judgement or rejection. An anxious moment in which to share their vulnerability with another person, to feel listened to, accepted. At that moment, the Listener is unintentionally placed in a position of power. They have the ability to ridicule, belittle, judge, love or empathise with the speaker. It could be that the Speaker’s story is minimised by such statements. It may feel patronising (“how would you know what it was like?”), belittling (“I tried to tell you my story, do you know how much mental energy it took to open up?”) or like the Listener mistrusts what the Speaker is saying to them (“why did I bother?”). That does not create a safe place for the Speaker to tell their story. Instead of saying “that sounds unideal, but I think that’s an overstatement,” try asking a question, to see why it was that bad for the Speaker. Far too often, statements like those discourage the speaker from reaching out again, leaving them lingering in this vicious cycle.

Because actually, to speak these stories is strength – albeit often disguised. It is an acknowledgement of a tough situation and a small window to think clearly. The anxious opening up to fear of rejection. The reliving of a past moment and thinking critically about why it affected them. The realisation that maybe it wasn’t just them that had a problem, perhaps someone who bullied them contributed to their illness. As a Listener, you hear a few words. You don’t hear the accelerated heartbeat, feel the sweat, battle with the thoughts and nightmares that this person may have suffered for years. It takes STRENGTH to be able to state these emotions to another person. Just as it takes STRENGTH to empathetically listen to another person.

There is room for discussion of the points raised, of course – but that space should come after. Maybe the Listener is right, maybe the Speaker is exaggerating. Maybe, the Speaker is speaking their own truth. The place for discussion of logic comes after the questions that try to understand the Speaker’s experience – not your experience, theirs. 

My key request to you is, please, try and listen. Try to create a space that the person can share their experience as they see it in their eyes, and understand why they feel that way. Be cautious of the words you use, your tone. Explore why they feel that way, without judgement. Perhaps listening to their story won’t do that much good in the end (an unfortunate stubbornness of mental health).However, the potential for damage in the other direction in much higher. The next time someone shares something personal with us, let’s make it a goal to try and listen empathetically.

Penny

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