Sunday, November 14, 2010

Strength for Flying Birds

At one point in our life, we’ve all probably had a friend and or family member who came to us for a listening ear. We waited patiently until we knew enough information to form an opinion and give advice. But what if the person talking was only looking to be heard?

So where do we get the patience to listen and hear instead of promoting our own thoughts and feelings? Where do we get the strength?

Several years ago, in a completely different life, I thought about becoming a therapist. I’d imagine sitting in a leather chair in my office while a patient lied on a sofa and told me his problems. Without hesitation, I’d tell the patient how to fix all of them, and then to please pay the secretary on the way out.

It seemed that easy to me, and I was ready to set up a practice and become the next Freud, only better looking and with nicer suits. But unfortunately, bureaucracy frowned at my idea. It said I had to get a degree first, and before I could do that, I had to do volunteer work that was related to mental health.

So I got a job at a suicide hotline, where I went through several weeks of training with other newly hired phone counselors. We were taught a process of listening called, “active listening.” It involved listening, but instead of giving advice, only repeating what the caller was saying. Below are some examples:

Caller: I feel hot and want to punch something.
Actively Listening Counselor: I hear that you’re angry

Caller: I don’t have a job, and owe more money on my house than it’s worth.
Counselor: I hear that you’re overwhelmed.

Caller: I don’t have any friends or family to care about.
Counselor: I hear that you’re lonely.

The concept of active listening is to give callers an opportunity to vocalize their issues without harsh interruptions like judgment or advice. When the counselor repeats what was said, the callers not only realize that someone is listening, but is also allowed to hear what they themselves are saying and feeling.

During the training, the newly hired phone counselors would role-play with each other to practice active listening. It took some time to block the impulse to give advice. But what was more difficult was truly hearing what the caller was saying so that I could repeat it to confirm that I had heard.

Active listening got easier with practice and time, and before long I was ready to answer phones and listen to real callers with real problems. The method worked with many of the callers, and at the end of our conversation, I felt like I’d really helped them. It amazed me that I was able to help by just listening and not giving advice.

One of my most unusual calls was from a man who was depressed because a bird flying through the air hit him in the head. To protect the privacy of this caller, I can’t share the details of our conversation. I can say however, that the experience traumatized him and he was near tears while talking.

I used active listening, and although the caller seemed grateful, I got the sense that he was still distraught after our phone call ended. Perhaps the reasoning is that I hadn’t truly heard what he’d said, and perhaps the reasoning for that is because I’d judged him.

It seemed so odd to me that a person could be depressed just because a bird had flown into his head. The situation sounded annoying, but also slightly amusing.

A few weeks after the call, I asked a friend what he thought about it. He was a French attorney, and always had interesting perspectives and opinions on situations.

“The man feels like he doesn’t exist,” said my friend. “Not even birds flying through the air know that he’s alive.”

The theory seemed farfetched, and I wondered if I should give my friend the phone number to speak to a phone counselor. But I soon realized that I was judging him, and that maybe he was right about my caller; maybe the man wanted to know that someone or something knew he was alive and cared about his existence; maybe he had questioned his self worth, something I myself had done and continue to do on many occasions.

As my time at the suicide hotline went by, I realized that the harsh reality of the mental health profession wasn’t a good fit for me. Instead of applying to graduate school and buying a sofa for potential patients to rest on, I dedicated my attention to writing.

But I will always value my education in active listening. I use the process often when speaking to family and friends who are only looking for an ear instead of advice. It has helped me to be less selfish during conversations, and built trust and stronger relationships. Listening to and commenting on people’s problems is instinctive. But blocking out our own agenda to truly hear what they are saying will bring us strength.

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