September 25, 2016

Compassionate Listening: 6 Pointers & a Teaching from Thich Nhat Hanh.


Alexandre Dulaunoy Flickr

“It is possible [that] the kindest thing we can offer our suffering friend is to sit in the darkness with them—holding their hand and staying so close.” ~ Matt Licata


About 25 years ago, a friend of mine I’ll call Cathy told me the story of the horrific accident she had been in when she was a little girl.

We were talking in the sunny kitchen of my house and, from where I was sitting I could clearly see the red scars that traveled up and down the side of her face, spreading into her hairline.

Quietly and thoughtfully, Cathy had begun to go through her story from the moment the accident happened to the moment 10 years afterward when she finally refused to have the 16th skin graft surgery.

Cathy had never told anyone the whole story before and, while she knew her mother was heartbroken about what had happened, she also felt guilty and couldn’t stand to hear Cathy recount the incident that had disfigured her for life.

Not having talked about it with her mother—or with anybody for that matter—had left Cathy feeling isolated and alone in her struggles.

“Every time I had one of those surgeries,” she said, “it was like I was down at the bottom of a huge well. I’d look up and see my mother and my family on the edge peering back down at me. ‘We’re here for you,’ they’d call out. ‘We love you.’ But they never left the rim of the well. Not one of them ever came down into the well with me. I was alone.”

My heart ached for Cathy and for the little girl who was still inside her trying to cope with her loneliness.

“What did your mother and family need to do so that you felt like they were in the well with you,” I had asked.

I specifically remember Cathy pausing to look out the window and, thinking carefully before answering my question, saying:

“They needed to listen to me. They needed to let me tell my story, exactly as I told it. Not judge it. Not tell me the pain would go away. Not say anything about it at all, actually. They just needed to listen to me.”

“[Simply listening to another removes] the burden that they change, transform, feel better, or heal in order for us to stay near. As we turn to embrace our own unmet sadness, grief, and despair, we remove the projection of our unlived lives from them.  We lift the weight that they take care of our unresolved anxiety for us.”  ~ Matt Licata

The wisdom and power of my friend’s simple words made their mark on me and when she said them, I felt a resolve rise up from deep inside.

“I can do that,” I said to myself. “I can get into the well with her. I can listen.”

I made a commitment—whenever the Cathy’s of the world needed to tell a difficult, painful or emotional story—to do what my friend needed and, instead of standing on the rim of the well calling down words of encouragement, to “get into the well with them.”

There is no question but that my life has been expanded and enriched by the happiest and saddest of stories that so many have told me since then from the Vietnam vet who was still haunted by the dark eyes of an unarmed villager he’d shot, to the mother who had to have an emergency Caesarean Section in order to save the life of the baby that was born dead after all, to the Holocaust survivor who claimed that it was pure luck that she had made it out alive when so many others had not.

Along the way, I have picked up many pointers on how to “sit in the darkness” with a friend and simply listen.

>> Recognize that when a person leaves the present and begins to recall or to retell emotion laden events of the past is when a story is soon to follow.

>> In order to provide the space that the story needs to unfold, simply be quiet.

>> Do not offer advice, ask questions or even touch a person who is in the midst of telling their tale.

>> Allow people to feel their feelings themselves—do not feel their feelings for them.

>>Do not judge the story or think of alternatives as to how they might have behaved differently.

>> Do not lay blame for any of the events in any way.

>> When a person pauses in their story, let them have their pause and do not be the next person to speak. Just wait for them to begin speaking again and cultivate patience while their story unfolds.

All these 25 years later, I am still grateful for Cathy trusting me with her story and for her telling me what she needed.

It changed both our lives. Hers, when she felt the comfort of another person having come down into the well with her and mine, when I felt the validation that doing such a simple thing as listening to others could alleviate some of the suffering in the world.

“Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Because you know that listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less. If you want to help him to correct his perception, you wait for another time. For now, you don’t interrupt. You don’t argue. If you do, he loses his chance. You just listen with compassion and help him to suffer less. One hour like that can bring transformation and healing.”  ~ Thich Nhat Hanh


Author: Carmelene Siani

Image: Alexandre Dulaunoy/Flickr 

Editor: Catherine Monkman

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