As someone who’s always considered herself a good listener and consistently been sought out and relied upon for her listening and support, it has been humbling to realise over the years how much of an ‘expert listener’ I actually *haven’t* been and how much I can keep learning.
The realisations and learnings have come in the form of imperceptible changes, rude shocks noticing that some skills of others were better than mine and reflecting on what people do that makes me feel supported whilst comparing that to what I give.
A few of the key things I’ve grown to understand and pay attention to are:
– I think I’m an expert advice-giver and I gain a sense of competence from saying the smart things. Sometimes people actually just want to express whatever it is that’s happening- they’re not looking for the fixes right then (this is often what I want too). If my aim in listening is to advise or fix, then my feeling a sense of competence becomes the focus instead of the person’s self expression being the focus (my ‘listening’, in essence is a self-serving act). I can ask what they’re wanting at that time. I will also still have moments when this urge still appears and I act on it.
-The logic, facts and sane advice are often insufficient motivators for people. Often more effective motivation is internally generated. Also, another person can’t carry me around on their shoulder as their constant decision-making advice giver, so developing their own skills to process difficulty is more effective for their independence. I can encourage a person to think, explore and generate their own understanding and conclusions. This is most effective for me too (something I’m actually very possessive of…).
– Often others’ experiences don’t make sense to me or are difficult to understand. If I’m asking questions to lead or challenge, or making comments that highlight illogic or irrationality I’m not actually listening- I’m imposing my opinion and not seeking the information from them directly that could help me understand. I can ask open-ended questions with the understanding that my assumptions may not be accurate to them. Sometimes I’m not successful at this.
– ‘Listening’ and ‘supporting’ are complex, multi-faceted skills developed over time. I feel safer, more trusting and more likely to seek the support of people who can listen like this (to be honest, I’m naturally untrusting of the reverse), I’ve noticed others are more drawn to these people too, so it’s logical that my support could work better if I can keep developing these skills. This is continuing.
– It is much more challenging to listen and support in this way when the person needing support is close to you and their experiences have an impact on you. This is something important to acknowledge, not to be either minimised or used as an excuse. Working towards a balance between self-care and supporting another creates more supportive relationships and imbalances in either direction often adversely impact on the effectiveness of supportive relationships- and the individuals themselves. There are lots of possibilities in each moment for working towards a balance- even when we haven’t known how in the moment we can take those instances to reflect on for the future. This is one of my own, biggest ongoing learnings and challenges.
The attached article is focused on depression, but the sections about when to be concerned, how to conduct conversations and self care can be applied to many situations in which people are experiencing difficulty.