Last night I gave a presentation to some students about how to provide support to those who have been affected by the accident last November. My advice is simple yet difficult to do: listen carefully.
Most of the time we’re too focused on ourselves to listen to what others are saying. We’re thinking about what we want to say, what we don’t want to say, whether the other person is listening to what we’re saying, what we’re going to do once this conversation ends. You get the idea.
As I got better at listening, I noticed that people put out feelers about important aspects of themselves, just to test the waters–to see if anyone notices.
Once I was watching my ex play in a basketball tournament, and I had to sit with a bunch of wives I didn’t know who were also watching their spouses play. I was having the usual conversation when I meet someone new. What do you do for a living? I’m a psychologist. Oh, I bet you’re psychoanalyzing me right now! Yup. I’ve got you all figured out.
This was not the response she expected. But she still asked more questions. Do you specialize in anything? Eating disorders, multicultural identity, positive psychology. Interesting! I had an eating disorder once.
Of course this got my attention. It was my turn to ask questions. At first I worried that she would be offended by my prying into her mental health history, but it was the exact opposite. She had never told her story to anyone. Back then no one talked about eating disorders. Bulimia wasn’t even a diagnosis. She wanted someone to hear what she went through.
This is always the response I get when I follow up on those feelers that people throw out there.
There’s nothing magical about being a good listener. Anyone can do it. The best way to get better at it is to pay closer attention to yourself. We spend so much time trying to will ourselves to think, feel, and do what we think we should think, feel, and do that we don’t really know ourselves. This is often what I do therapy: teach people how to observe themselves without judgment.
It’s not easy to do. It takes practice. This blog is one of the ways that I practice listening to myself, and you can see how hard it is for me to do so in a nonjudgmental way. But I am trying to treat myself the way I would treat anyone who I care about deeply, and I suggest that you do the same.
Because hopefully you are someone who you care about deeply.