In an old Russian film about schoolchildren, 14-year-olds are being asked to write an essay about happiness. One boy scandalizes all the teachers by writing only one sentence: “Happiness is when you are being understood.” This phrase stayed with me since I have first watched the film as a teenager, and later on. It resonated with me. I too dreamed of being understood. My inner life was so intense that I felt an overwhelming need to share it, to show somebody my world…
But what does it mean to be understood? Can we ever fully understand another person? Can we really step into their shoes and experience their world – colours, sounds, pain and joy – as they experience it? This would mean becoming the other person, and although such a fusion of minds could perhaps be experienced in occasional exalted moments, this is an exception rather than the everyday reality. In reality, I believe, the closest to understanding the other would be hearing the other. Hearing with full presence and desire to understand as closely as you can what is it the person is trying to communicate to you. The message may be – and often is – hidden in-between the words, in a tone of a voice, in a twinkle of the eyes, in the posture of a person, so you need to listen very intently and closely.
Such type of listening is extremely rare. Think about conversations with your friends. Most often we talk over each other. The moment a friend mentions something that happened to him or her our associative memory links it to a similar event that happened to us and we get impatient to talk about it, so we don’t register much of what our friend is saying any more. Or we intercept and start speaking of ourselves. So many of our conversations resemble this:
“You know, I had an accident last week – I slipped when running after a bus and broke my wrist.”
“Oh, no, how awful!”
“Yes, I didn’t think it was something serious at first and didn’t go straight to the hospital, and by night my arm was swollen and terribly painful.”
“Yes, this happened to me when I was 12: I broke my leg falling from a bike and we only went to the hospital the following day. I spent the whole night nursing my leg and trying not to cry. But I did cry when they put cast on my leg! It was during summer holidays, by the seaside, and I was totally devastated that I had to lounge on the beach, bored, while all other kids were swimming and having fun.”
This is the story I used to tell when people spoke to me about their broken limbs. But haven’t we all been on both sides of such a conversation? It is almost as if we are being perpetually trapped in the vicious circle of impatience to talk and the frustration of not being listened to and heard. Then how do we break this cycle? I believe it can only happen intentionally and when we become aware of what is going on for us in a conversation. To listen empathically we need to be able to suspend our desire to express ourselves and give our full attention to another person. As a counsellor I can testify that it is not as difficult as it seems. Counsellors are not different from other people, but when you enter a therapy room you bracket out – intentionally and as far as you can – your own stuff and dedicate your attention to the person you are working with. Once the decision is made that you are not going to use this space for talking about yourself, it becomes reasonably easy to focus on your conversation partner.
Another common challenge on the way of empathic listening is the urge to give advice trying to “fix” either our friends or their situation. Although, very occasionally, our constructive suggestions may be taken onboard, most usually unsolicited advice elicits resistance or even offence. Even though I have already been working as a therapist and have been aware of the importance of non-judgemental listening I have still done the same “fixing” mistake when talking with my friends. I would try to show them their patterns of behaviour that were not helpful or try to explain the psychology of interpersonal situations. And one day a friend, having lost her patience in a telephone conversation, has screamed at me: “Can’t you just listen? I just want to talk and get it out of my chest! I want to be heard – I don’t want to be fixed!”
Although it seems to us that our intention in giving advice is to help our loved ones, more often than not the true reason for this urge to come up with a solution is our own discomfort at staying with difficult emotions. We may feel helpless, concerned, anxious. And we are trying to alleviate this discomfort of ours by “fixing” them. As one of my clients said, when we explored the sources of miscommunication with his wife: “I got it, it is really true: when my wife is trying to talk to me about her concerns and I am telling her ‘don’t worry!’ I am actually saying ‘don’t worry me with it’!”
Advice always presupposes evaluation or judgment (even if positive), and haven’t we all had enough of that? Can I be let simply be, imperfect as I am, in joy and foolishness and sadness? In myself, in my clients and in people with whom I hold emotional conversations I recognize this longing… The longing to be accepted just as we are. Yet it is difficult to withhold our judgements and opinions when listening to a person in distress. We want to do something, we want to be able to help, not to remain passive. Well – to this I may say that we tend to greatly underestimate the power of empathic listening. This kind of listening is not a passive act, for you need to listen with your whole being, to immerse yourself in the process.
Carl Rogers, one of the pioneers of Humanistic psychology and a founder of person-centred therapy wrote that when a person “finds someone else listening acceptantly to his feelings, he little by little becomes able to listen to himself” (On Becoming a Person). When we are being listened to in this particular way, when we feel accepted as we are, we begin to get in touch with our inner being, our own inner guide that will unlock hidden resources for healing and growth.