**Author’s Note: This column was supposed to be published yesterday morning (Nov. 19), but human error delayed it by 24 hours. I uploaded and prepped everything, but forgot to hit the “publish” button.
(Silverdale, Washington; Nov. 19, 2020) – I did something this past Monday I’ve never done before: I walked out of my counselor’s office before the appointment ended.
I walked out because she would not shut up and listen.
To be fair, I’ve developed a great deal of respect for this doctor over the past year, so I’m chalking this one up to a bad day for her on reading cues and all, but I’m in a very dark place and such incidents only increase the isolation I feel. I needed her to just listen; instead, she dominated the conversation by continually suggesting coping strategies. The feeling of—again—not being listened to increased the dislocation and disconnection I’m fighting.
Today is my 49th birthday. I live alone. I’m single.
My grandmother (my final grandparent) passed away Oct. 15.
Two weeks later my best friend abandoned me after his emotionally abusive wife turned her sh*t on me. I’ve kept my mouth shut for years because it wasn’t my place to say anything. However, when she went after me twice (screaming one day, and then freaking out two days later in a tantrum that resulted in my right hand receiving a minor burn), she made me a player, and I laid it out to my friend. He’s the victim of domestic abuse, and I’ll not set foot in their home until his wife and I have a very long talk about her treatment of me (again, I can’t save him; he has to make his own choices). I will not put up with such bullying. (If you’re guessing he just wrote me off, go to the head of the class!)
Two weeks after that, my friend Brian Hamilton committed suicide, losing a battle with depression that was piled on by the COVID pandemic killing his job and isolating him at the same time he was wrestling with his own wife leaving him. Brian was a shipmate and friend.
I was finally starting to come out of my own depression over the past three weeks because I could finally go write at my “other” studio—Starbucks. After nearly eight months of isolation, I had direct contact (if limited by masks and intelligent distancing) with humanity!!
Washington State just killed that by ordering Shutdown #2.
I’m in the middle of grieving for three major personal losses, I have exactly one set of friends left in town, and now I can’t even go sit in a coffee shop to work because our summer of love (you know, the riots and insurrections and post-election street parties that were all wonderfully unreported and unstopped super-spreader events) shot America’s COVID numbers through the roof.
And nobody, it seems, wants to just shut up and listen.
People are freaking quick to start telling me what to do in order to feel better. They often start rapidly listing off things like calling someone or getting on Skype, watching more TV, or reading another book. Oooh! This is the best time to start a new hobby! Go do this or that and you’ll be happy, hunky-dory, and never feel lonely again!
Such drivel drives the chasm of isolation open even further for one simple reason: nobody in the above paragraph actually listened to anything. No connection was made, no sense of community was built. The only thing accomplished by such a conversational dismissal (even if a dismissal was not the intended result) is to make the person seeking connection feel like they’re being told they’re not worth the time.
This brings me back to the point of this column: most of the time the person reaching out only needs the other person to listen.
I understand the temptation to talk. Sometimes we spout off because we’re genuinely moved by the other person’s pain and want to relieve that pain. Sometimes we spout off because we’re uncomfortable with the conversation, and it’s human nature to quickly end to uncomfortable situations (especially if the person talking to us asks the universal—and forever unanswerable—question of, “Why did this happen?”).
The truth is that no one has answers for anyone else. We might be able to provide guidance or suggestions, but, in the end, we each must find our own answers. Most people who seek our support need us to just listen. Actively listening to a person who needs to talk reassures them the emotions they’re experiencing are normal while providing a sense of connection and community.
When someone reaches out to you, let them vent, cry, or whatever. Let them know you hear them. Let them know their pain is a normal human response to a horrible situation (in other words: validate and, thereby, create a sense of human connection). Go ahead and tell them you have no answers, but you’re more than willing to just be there with them.
Don’t be afraid to directly ask them what they need. Do they need you to provide ideas for coping strategies? Do they need you to simply listen? Getting a clear idea from them about their needs will help you feel at ease because you’ll know what’s expected, and whether or not you can meet that expectation. If not, let the person know, but also let them know what you are able to do, even if the “are able to do” category contains only one act: listening.
You’d be surprised how often that’s all the person needs. Understanding that your best response to someone in need is to simply listen removes pressure on you to act, thereby preventing you from freaking out under the stress of a self-imposed belief that you have to rescue the person. You can’t rescue them; none of us can ‘rescue’ anyone from emotional turmoil. We’re all limited by our humanity, but our humanity is the very thing that lets us build communities by listening to one another.
During times of stress there are surprisingly easy ways to create a sense of community. We create communities through small acts as well as large ones. The smallest, quietest act we can perform—a small, quiet act with a vastly outsized impact—is to stop talking and just listen.
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