Listening: the art of understanding

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Listening is more than simply hearing. It requires patience, sensitivity and mindfulness. Ultimately, it’s the art of understanding, a cohesion of our ears, minds and hearts.

This month I attended the AGM of Burnley and Pendle Samaritans, a group working hard at a skill our society often undervalues.

Nowadays, we’re a collection of individuals wanting to be heard. And that’s awesome: throughout history, millions of voices - women’s, homosexuals’, those of differing race - have been repressed and quashed. But social media has helped us to open up about our experiences. It’s clear we’re becoming braver; and more tolerant.

Yet it’s become a preoccupation: reality TV blowing up a desire for fame; social media propelling our need for approval by tallying “likes” and “followers”; fights erupting online over everything and anything, thanks to the anonymity and instantaneousness of commenting.

I worry we’re not only becoming all the more hyper-vigilant about expectations and approval but that we’re also muffling the voices of the vulnerable. We’re at risk of turning away from the signs of a person withdrawing from the world.

In his AGM talk, Psychology Coach James Marquis identified Samaritans as a “safe harbour”, praising the volunteers for their listening abilities, for their strength in resisting the urge to offer advice or their two cents to callers.

“Depression”, he said, for example, “is a retreat mechanism, a pulling away from a perceived ‘dark’, hopeless world. When someone calls Samaritans, they’re reaching out, rather than relying on a destructive dependency technique like binge-drinking or gambling to escape their pain. They’re looking for a light in a dark world. It’s a beautiful sign”.

For some people, being heard is not about popularity or being right or fitting in with the status quo. It’s about escaping horrific thoughts and feelings. So, at times, we need to give up our energy for listening. Because, sometimes, some people need the attention more than we do.

This undervaluing of listening only perpetuates the stigma surrounding mental illness: that sufferers need to “pull themselves together”. In reality, distressing thoughts hound, swamp and fetter. The feelings follow you everywhere, swirling around the brain. Sometimes, you don’t need advice. You just need to release those thoughts from your head. And by listening, Samaritans validates and confirms the very realness of a caller’s feelings.

I’ve also found my willingness to listen is useful for evaluating the state of my mental health. When I’m anxious, I crave too much reassurance and approval. But when I’m content, I can mentally slow down and show greater patience and interest in those around me. Being mindful of others therefore reminds us that we don’t needed excessive approval, that our beliefs and life choices don’t need to be applauded or popular to be worth standing strong in. Above all, it reminds us that showing love is enough for happiness in a given moment. And that quietens the racket in my brain.

Sometimes, it’s hard to find the right words to offer someone in distress, especially in situations you’ve never experienced. But sometimes, you don’t need to say anything at all. Rather, to show you care, all you need to do is just listen, just be there.

At times, the best thing for your mental health is an ear. But in others, it’s being that ear. Because if accepting that one has a problem is half the battle, then you, like Samaritans, are offering a space in a “harbour” to someone who needs to safely identify the damage to their sails and prepare to ride out the storm ahead.