First published as a blog post for Someone To Tell It To, an organisation that was formed from their desire to support others in a deeper way and give people someone who would listen with compassion.
Most of us have a natural desire to help others. Seeing someone in distress makes us feel uncomfortable. It triggers our ‘righting reflex’, that innate desire to help make things better for the other person. Our inner Rescuer pulls us into action:
We make suggestions and offer solutions to the other person’s problems:
Have you thought about doing …?
How about I do … for you?
We show ‘understanding’ by sharing our own similar experiences:
I know just how you feel.
Something very similar happened to me recently.
We add our ‘wise’ perspective on the matter:
She was probably just trying her best.
I’m sure he didn’t mean any harm by it.
Ironically, there are times when our well-intentioned efforts to make things better can have an unintended impact.
Our need to fix things gives the message that uncomfortable emotions must be ‘solved’ and that certain thoughts and emotions are not acceptable.
Our desire to be helpful and make ‘useful’ suggestions robs the other person of the opportunity to explore their situation for themselves.
Our clever thoughts and insights can leave the other person doubting their own perspective, feeling that they ‘should’ be seeing things in a different way.
Our shared experiences bring the focus of the conversation to ourselves rather than simply allowing the other person to tell their own story.
But what happens if we resist the temptation to rescue?
If we are willing to sit alongside a person in their discomfort rather than go into ‘fix it mode’ we give them the message that it’s ‘OK to not feel OK.’ If we trust them to be capable of thinking for themselves we empower them to find their own solutions to their problems.
I have a metaphor for what needs to happen to be able to listen in this way. Imagine you are entering a space in which all thoughts and emotions are welcomed: a space where vulnerability is not something to be feared or avoided, but rather accepted as just being part of what it means to be human; a space where the person you are listening to can explore their thinking without having to censor what they say for fear of being judged or making you feel uncomfortable; a space where confidentiality is respected and they know there is no risk of what they say becoming the topic of next week’s gossip; a space in which they can roll up their sleeves and lean into the discomfort of ambiguity and uncertainty so that their precious vulnerable selves can be seen.
In order to enter this space, you first need to wipe your feet on the Welcome Mat. In doing so you wipe away any desire to fix, analyse, change or judge. Your intention is simply to remain curious as they explore their situation.
It can take a leap of faith to listen to someone in this way. This is not a space for asking clever questions or rushing in to make things better. Instead you need to work on the assumption that people make useful choices when they are encouraged to gain awareness of themselves and do their own thinking. The less you try and help them, the more likely they are to gain insights and make changes that work for them. There may be times when they choose to talk about difficult thoughts and emotions, and you can never quite know where their exploration will lead them. At these moments you may need to sit with a degree of discomfort, confusion or uncertainty and resist the pull to go into ‘fix-it’ mode.
This kind of listening means;
‘taking a vigorous, human interest in what is being told us. You can listen like a blank wall, or like a splendid auditorium where every sound comes back fuller and richer.
Alice Duer Miller
So next time you want to offer your listening to someone else you might want to press pause and set aside any desire to make things better, resist the urge to interpret and analyse, put to the back of your mind any clever thoughts and insights you feel the other person ought to hear, slip into your back pocket all those experiences you want to share so they know just how much you understand their situation, switch off your ‘nosey brain’ and suppress any temptation to find out the juicy details. Wipe your feet on the Welcome Mat and open a space for the person to tell their story in their own way. Let them explore their feelings – the good, the bad and the ugly. Be a witness to their wholehearted exploration. This may be the greatest gift that you can offer them.
People shine not in the glow of your charisma.
They shine in the light of your attention for them …
They shine because you remind them that they matter.
Illustrations by Lucy Monkman