I find it helpful in moments of feeling my small-ness to touch back on the foundations of the healing arts – the basics. I remember that the true power of therapeutic work comes in the small elements of joining another person in their emotional space. At the core of our practice, we bear witness to the narratives of our clients – listeners.
Listening is the small but powerful act of being present with another human in their experience (of pain, or joy, or confusion, or sadness – the particular emotion is not overly important). Listening done well has a far reach, and we can all learn to attune to one another in meaningful ways.
The Power of Holding Space
The presence of another – often regardless of their ability to relate or understand – is enough to bring us back to feeling part of the larger human experience, and pull us out of our own private, lonely orbit. This is because usually, when we seek support, we are not looking for someone to solve our problems; we are looking for someone to sit in the problems with us. We want to know that someone is out there, and that we are truly not as isolated as we sometimes feel.
A good listener is aware that they do not necessarily need to offer solutions or advice. In fact, to problem-solve is often the lesser response, and usually misses the point entirely. The real power of listening is in the held space, the eye contact, the presence, the silence, and the undivided attention. All of these things communicate, “No, you are not in this alone. I am in it with you.”
The Power of Being Seen
We are compelled to keep parts of ourselves private because we fear that those parts will not be understood by the people around us. We fear that these parts of us are weird or different in some way, or that they are something to be embarrassed about or ashamed of. When we bravely dare to share these parts, we are looking for a rebuttal to these fears – for someone to confirm that we are understandable, that we are “normal,” that we can release our shame, that we can be fully seen for who we are.
To listen to someone without judgment is to give them the gift of being seen. In doing so, we validate the other – we hear their experience and assure them that it is relatable and human. When we listen, and we nod, and we smile; when we don’t run away horrified or roll our eyes, we validate their authenticity and humanity. Validation of another person does not require language – to provide a listening ear without judgment is enough.
The Power of Silence
In the midst of understanding, there is silence.
I believe that it is often harder to sit with someone in pain without trying to DO anything about it, than to talk through the pain to try to ignore or dissipate it. However, it is sometimes kinder to let the words land, even (especially) the painful or shameful ones, and give them room to breathe and to be adequately heard, than to try to sweep them under the rug with cleverly crafted responses. Silence is strong, it is effective, and it is brave.
When we question our abilities to be there effectively for the people we love, we can return, again and again, to the simple art of listening well.
Originally posted on my blog, Common Humanity, at Psych Central.com. To read more, visit https://blogs.psychcentral.com/common-humanity/