Bhavana is a blogger, a social activist and a dear friend who blogs at Tilling the Earthwoman, where she writes from the heart. Her posts are wrenched out of her gut at times, searing in their impact. At other times, she writes with a feather touch, about the people she meets and who leave their mark on her; and yet at other times she is the crisp researcher and academician, who puts her points across in a sensible, no-nonsense manner. She is a survivor in the true sense of the word, as she has not let her suffering make her bitter. Instead, she believes in compassion and gives of herself unconditionally. She calls me her blog mother — and I feel humbled by the title.
In the previous post on this blog, I had talked about us getting involved when an injustice is happening. Listening is one way of doing that. Just by lending a sympathetic ear, one can alleviate the pain and suffering of a victim, sometimes even prevent a crime. So when she offered me this post, I thought it would be in logical sequence.
In this post, Bhavana shares some points that a ‘deep listener’ has to keep in mind while lending her ear to an anguished person. Read on…
“The listening is a process of contraction, of stepping back and creating a void into which the other may enter. It is the distance “I” create so that “you” may come forward.” –Lisbeth Lipari, 2004
This post is dedicated to those who listen.
What is there to listening, you may ask. Well, it is an art, a therapy, a spiritual act, no less. But for listening to be effective, the listener has to do it with her heart, else the one being listened to finds no solace. How often do we catch ourselves tuning out when someone is talking? ….cut into their words and talk of our own experiences, hoping to make them feel better and less alone? ….are impatient? There are a lot of other things besides, which we indulge in while listening, making us less than ideal listeners. This perhaps explains why many choose to remain silent and suffer….and thus perpetuate violence and exploitation.
As the country spills over on the streets protesting against sexual violence, old memories creep back in and wounds open up for many existing rape survivors. I noticed in the past days that several of my facebook friends who are rape survivors, stopped posting updates, never shared the latest news, or if they did, shared something funny, even frivolous. I could understand that the protests were churning their hearts.
Under such circumstances, while some become silent, others start seeking a listening ear—to speak of their grief, of memories, of a pain that refuses to dislodge. And then the listener becomes a key figure. But we are not talking here of mere listening, but deep listening.
It is not difficult to become a deep listener. All it takes are a few techniques, which this post aims to provide. (I have used the pronoun she or her but feel free to substitute it with he or him as needed.) I do not write this as an expert but rather as a person who has received deep listening over the years and understood why I felt listened to and therefore soothed.
But before I proceed further, there is a small note of caution: Although you might be the best and kindest of friends who can listen with compassion and empathy, sometimes it is not enough. Also there is no substitute for professional help. Do seek local resources and encourage her to use it, if you feel it is needed.
These are just a few things to remember while listening deeply:
Don’t judge, argue, advice, get angry and most of all — please don’t pity:
- When a friend calls you to vent her anguish or rant or express frustration, please understand that she wants a safe space where she can express her fear/anger without being judged. She may not be calling you for solutions or advice. So refrain from giving her those. Instead, give your heart, your presence to that moment and witness her pain. No more. No less.
- You don’t need to calm the person down, if she is angry or confused. She will calm down by herself when she feels listened to. Do not argue; do not debate; do not point out how it is some peculiarity in their personality that had caused the event. They already feel helpless and vulnerable, so don’t add to the feeling.
- When a friend is in grief and very sad, please do not say that you disapprove of it and will be angry with her for being sad. She is already isolated in her grief, guilty about her helplessness and does not need one more person being upset with her existence.
- While showing sympathy, avoid offering to do things for her like buying her groceries, cleaning her house, or doing or saying anything that says, ‘poor you!’ It will make her feel helpless and put her in a cycle when she will come to depend on you. As a good friend, help her figure out things for herself. The only way she will emerge out of her grief is when she finds strength and power in herself.
- When a person is in extreme grief and talks about hurting herself or taking a radical, possibly destructive decision, do not say she is stupid and that you thought she was way more intelligent or strong and that you are surprised at her behaviour. Your comment only helps to validate her self-belief that she is stupid and worthless.
- When a friend is sad, use words of empathy: ‘that is tough,’ ‘your heart must be hurting,’ ‘that is painful,’ ‘I hear you,’ or vocal tones which express empathy. But listen honestly and with sincerity because those who are sad also tend to be very sensitive to nuances in your tone and words.
- When a friend who is grieving or angry, asks for advice, allow them to figure out solutions as much as possible, by themselves. You can say: ‘Hmmm, okay how do you think you can handle this situation?’ Often she would come up with solutions of her own and when she does, applaud her efforts. While the solutions may or may not be good, it is a wonderful thing that she is regaining strength and insight to deal with her emotions in the process of finding it. In short, help her to help herself.
What do you do when a friend is suicidal?
- Please stay on phone or online with her. Just keep her talking. You can even ask her how she intends to do it and evaluate how close she is to tipping over the edge. Appreciate her efforts to call you and say that it is very courageous of her to do so. Keep your voice calm – it will relax her. Breathe for her.
- Those who are suicidal are sometimes self-obsessed and do not think about the consequence of their actions. Remind them of their loved ones. But sometimes this can have the opposite effect. In such cases, you can say things like how hurt you will be if she did something tonight after speaking to you and how it will impact your life. You can even say the next day is a special day for you — a birthday or anniversary maybe — and how the day will be scarred if she hurt herself today. The point is to make her aware of others because she doesn’t see them in her present state.
- When she begins to ease out a bit, make her promise to not hurt herself that day/night and get her to say it. Do not end the conversation unless you are absolutely sure she is ok.
- And afterwards, please do not become overprotective of her. You will be rewarding her behaviour by doing so. Just be a friend and stand by.
- Do encourage her to seek professional help. Find local suicide hotlines and encourage her to use them. For those in Chennai, Sneha offers excellent listening at 044-24640050. You can also visit their website http://www.snehaindia.org/ (Some helpline numbers are given at the end)
Take care of yourself, Listener!
Listening is not without its own perils. A session of deep listening can sometimes take too much out of you, leaving you drained and exhausted. It is therefore important that you know how to take care of yourself after a session.
- You are able to listen because you have emptied a portion of yourself to receive the other. This also means you will absorb the negative energies of the other. While there are some healing herbs that you can rub on your hands, you may at the very minimum wash your hands and face after a deep listening session. Some choose to listen to soul/chakra cleansing music; some write a journal; some have strong spiritual practices.
- Do find a friend that you can talk to because some of what you hear will trigger your own pain. A good mindfulness session after a deep listening one will help to bring you back to the present moment.
- There are times when your listening might not be enough or help. In such an event, please learn to be kind to and forgive yourself. You can only offer your ears and hearts but how well that is received is a combination of grace and her own life path. Please don’t blame yourself if things don’t go well.
Listening is a wonderful spiritual practice. It is also a great social service. Try it. For something that is so simple, it can be life-changing for someone and you too.
Some helpline numbers:
AASRA, Mumbai (022 27546669) (24 hrs)
SUMAITRI, Delhi (011 23389090) (daytime services but weekend till 11 pm)
Sahai, Bangalore (080 25497777 – from 10-5PM)
Hotline Nagpur Area for farmers (08888817666) (in Marathi only)
Homepage picture by Swati Maheshwari