I’m having a confidentiality crisis. While eager to share my carefully-crafted reflective journal, I’m haunted by the ground rule agreed on by my class that ‘what’s said in the room stays in the room’. So here, instead, are some ponderings on the concept of the moment: ‘active listening’.
Last night, we considered the challenges we encounter when an intuitive 50/50 friendship balance is skewed in a counselling setting as one person takes on the role of ‘active listener’; seeking to understand, encourage and empower the other.
I know someone who does this ‘active listening’ thing really well. So well, in fact, that I never realise she’s doing it until I find myself sharing issues that I’d had no intention of telling anyone – assuming, that is, that I’d even realised those issues were there in the first place. Just a few minutes with her and I feel valued, understood and safe. The end of the tunnel seems, if not in sight, then at least just around the corner.
Upon reflection, I am probably on this counselling course because I want to emulate her, acutely aware of my current shortfalls. The other week, a young man came to see me because his much-needed asylum support hadn’t come through. Pushed for time and aware of my ‘to do’ list, I made the required phone call. Forced by the classical waiting music to also put my own busyness on hold, I suddenly saw the young person in front of me. And it dawned on me that the money, while important, wasn’t the whole issue. Yes, the phone call helped, but what he really wanted was for someone to know that he felt in limbo; scared to keep living in destitution here yet lost at the prospect of return to his no-longer home country. I was too tired and busy to see that.
I’m reflecting on my limitations and on the fact that listening – really listening – is hard work. Especially when I’m tired, it’s much easier to smooth over surface issues and, in my projected frustration at a given situation, to forget to remember the immense value of the person in front of me. Or maybe I’m just scared that if I listen, I may actually hear, and I’m questioning my capacity to take what I hear on board.
And that’s not to mention the limitations of my experience. As we spoke last night, I was struck by the consistency of the issues that people face – relationships, health, purpose, money, work, conflict, and so on – the areas of connection, of shared humanity if you like, that we can all relate to regardless of the specifics. In this common ground there’s a fair chance we may bump into each other. But what about when people are coming from unchartered waters, sharing a story of a far-off life which I feel unqualified to hear. As I start swimming out to someone who’s trying to stay afloat in a sea of unshared trauma, the islands of common ground can seem few and far between.
I may not fully understand where you’re coming from, but I do want to learn to listen. I do have ears to hear. Please let me hear.