Listening as an act of compassion

Every other Thursday night I volunteer at the Dougy Center. The Dougy Center creates a space for grieving children and their families, primarily in the form of peer support and play groups. Every other Thursday, I sit with adults who have had their spouse, partner, or child die. While their children or grandchildren play downstairs, the adults spend an hour and a half talking about their grief.

It is very easy to get overwhelmed by their stories of loss. There is no way to fix the situation, no way to take away the pain these families are experiencing. As a facilitator of the group,my primary role is that of listener. I'm not a trained therapist and I'm not there to promote healthy coping strategies or anything like that. I'm only there to make sure that each participant has the opportunity to share, if they want to share, and feel heard. It sounds fairly simple, but the impact of creating the space for authentic sharing and authentic listening is big. The families often talk about how much they value the support groups and what a comfort it is have a space to share their stories. 

As I think about the social dialogues I'm paying attention to right now, often related to racism and inequity, I have to wonder what would be possible if more people took the time to really listen to each other.

One of the stories in a recent episode of This American Life hit on this theme. The true story is about a high school boy who runs away from home to the house of his idol, a prolific sci-fi author he has never met or spoken to. The boy hates his life at home and is hoping the author will take him in and let him live there. After stealing from his college fund, catching a flight, and tracking down the author in the phonebook, he arrives at the author's home and has to explain himself. They talk for hours and then the author tells the boy he can't stay there, but surprisingly the boy isn't that disappointed. 

The boy describes the experience decades later, "...the fact that he didn't just dismiss it out of hand as soon as I got there, that he sat down and listened to me and talked with me and tried to advise me in a really caring way, and me outlining my situation in words made me stop and really think about my situation more clearly, too." 

The reporter on the story goes on to say, "Andy says that was the first time anyone had listened to him explain why he was so unhappy. And it felt like a fever or hex had broken."  (In the full This American Life episode, this story is Act 1.)

The most profound act the author engaged in was listening. He gave the boy the opportunity to feel heard, and that alone changed the entire dynamic of the situation.

I think listening is so powerful because it is an act of compassion. It is one person saying to another: your story is worthy of my time and attention, and therefore you are worthy of my time and attention. It's this demonstration of compassion that has power for the listener as well. 

On a recent episode of On Being with Krista Tippett, Patrisse Cullors, artist and co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter, comments,  "...human to human, if you take a moment to be with somebody, to understand the pains they’re going through, you get to transform yourself." 

When you take the time to listen and extend that compassion, the next step is empathy. If we can listen to stories of pain and injustice and keep the humanity of the tellers of those stories at the center, I'd like to think we have no choice but to be transformed. We have to see the commonalities in our experiences and our desires. We all want to be loved and accepted. We want our loved ones to be safe and healthy.

We all want to be heard. Sharing our stories seems to me to be the easier side of the equation. But how do we create the desire for listening? How do we create more spaces where authentic sharing is honored? 

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Email me or post them below. 


P.S. I was listening to the latest episode of This American Life just this morning, and Act 1 begins to make the scientific case for the power of listening in changing hearts and minds. Seriously, just the act of listening--powerful stuff.  

Listen Photo credit: ky_olsen via Visual hunt / CC BY

Chairs Photo credit: Chobist via Visualhunt / CC BY