Please... 'Really' Listen
"TELL ME ALL ABOUT IT", you say.
"A trouble shared is a trouble halved," you say.
"Just talk to me. I can help you," you say.
And you mean it. You sincerely mean it.
Here is a deeply troubled person.
Maybe a relative, maybe a friend, maybe an acquaintance who can find solace nowhere else - except through sharing it with one who knows little about them.
And you genuinely want to help ease their pain - to help ease some part of the burden that is wearing them down, burning them up - from the inside out.
But DO you know how to really listen? Do you know what is truly required?
...verbal vs. non-verbal
Many years ago, when I was one of a group of trainee telephone counsellors, we were first reminded that humans are born with two ears and one mouth - an indication maybe that we should listen twice as much as we talk?
And we learnt that communication is only 45% verbal, and 55% non-verbal.
A mind-blowing thought - as a Telephone Counsellor, we would lose 55% of possible communication with this stressed caller.
How then, would we possibly 'read' their problems over the phone - with no visuals to follow, no eyes to look deeply into, no frowns or tightened mouths, no gestures? On first awareness, it all seemed impossible.
How could you even begin to discover all you need to know to help and support in any way - via your ears only?
Walking The Road
And so the training began. And we, the trainees, began to understand exactly why we needed this - and why we would not be allowed into this voluntary role until we could satisfy our 'teachers' that we had sufficiently developed these elusive skills.
No amount of platitudes could heal these problems. In fact, no amount of almost anything we had previously believed were going to solve THESE problems.
In the famous words of that immortal sage -
'A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step'
And then, in our training session, someone gave out copies of the invaluable words that follow. And we were humbled. And profoundly grateful to have this amazing opportunity - to learn how to walk just a short distance in someone else's shoes.
When I ask you to listen to me and you start giving advice -
you have not listened to me.
When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I shouldn't feel that way -
you are trampling on my feelings.
When I ask you to listen to me and you feel you have to do something to solve my problem -
you have failed, strange as that may seem.
All I asked was that you listen - not talk or do - just hear me.
Advice is cheap.
Twenty cents will get you both Dear Abby and Billy Graham in the same newspaper.
And I can do that for myself.
I'm not helpless.
Maybe discouraged and faltering - but NOT helpless.
...this treasure isn't finished yet.
When you do something for me that I can and need to do for myself, you contribute to my fear
But, when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel, no matter how irrational,
then I can quit trying to convince you and get about the business of understanding what's behind this irrational feeling.
And when that's clear, the answers are obvious and I don't need advice.
Irrational feelings make sense when we learn to understand what's behind them.
Perhaps that's why prayer works sometimes, for some people -
because God is mute, and He doesn't give advice or try to fix things.
He just listens and lets you work it out for yourself.
So, please listen and just hear me.
And, if you want to talk, wait a minute for your turn and I'll listen to you.
THIS is the Basis of All the Best Listening Skills.
A 'blueprint' for the professional and the layman alike to learn from and live by. Obviously these are the words of a person able to clearly state what so many others who find themselves in the middle of this impossible and unbearable situation require of their trusted 'listener'. And then we learnt that these words were also from that very famous sage I quoted above - ANONYMOUS!
Throughout my years as a volunteer 'phone counsellor I tried to never lose the memory of these words, and to hold tightly in my heart and soul an image of exactly what I would want if I were this desperate, this needy - if I were in this much solitary pain. And I thought I would want the kind of listener described above.
And although I am not a church-going person, I am deeply spirituaI, and have a deeply held faith and belief in God, and so I particularly loved the reference to Him and his handling of our worst 'earthly' problems and suffering.
A Vietnam Vet
...called the Help line one night...
His voice was deep and distressed; his words slightly slurred - and what he told me sent a chill of fear through my body.
"I'm going to shoot the bastards! They're not going to take me away alive. And I'll take out plenty of them with me when I go!"
I felt panicky - my hands began to shake. I'd coped with many hairy situations on the phones before, but never murder threats and plans. I thanked God and my trainers for being able to keep my voice calm and warm, as my pulse thundered in my ears, and my skin prickled. I took a deep inaudible breath and asked him to tell me about it - and what was happening to him to bring him to this moment.
He was a Vietnam veteran. He had guns, including an automatic rifle and ammunition - "a lot of ammunition", he said. And a persecution complex large enough to give him a seemingly unshakable belief that police were coming to 'get' him later this day. He was determined he would wipe them out, and as I carefully explored his story, I had no reason to doubt his potential to do so. The phone in my hand felt like a bomb primed to explode.
For the next two hours I was taken to a distressing depth inside his world; with an intensity few get to share. Even second-hand, I felt his pain, his anger, his frustration - and his grief.
I entered an alien world of corruption, snipers, barbaric traps and snares, malaria and leeches. It was a wet, humid world, where stinking green mold grew in and on everything; where saturated shoes and clothing chafed skin raw until it bled and festered with disgusting infections; where men forgot what the word dry meant; where men had great difficulty remembering they had once been human.
Through his words I shared a small part of the horror and despair and heart-breaking helplessness he and his mates had experienced in the face of one of the filthiest wars Man had ever created. Every War has left its survivors emotionally bankrupt - but in many ways this one was the worst - for all these reasons, and many, many more that few can talk about.
He cried - and I cried too - but silently. At one point however, he realized this, and was deeply touched that I empathized to that degree. Normally, tears would not happen in the counseling role, but on this night, on this call - it happened - and it worked. He was so terribly alone in his personal 'black hole'.
Easing the Strain
...and some of the pain.
It was like a steam valve opening and relieving all the pent-up pressures. Slowly, painfully, he wound down; and equally slowly he sobered up to the stark realization of what he had been contemplating.
The greatest moment of that call came when he said, "I must have been completely 'nuts' for a while there, love" - and he was right.
My task had been to attempt to carefully bring him to a state of awareness and acceptance that his phone call to this number proved that somewhere deep inside he didn't want to go through with his plan. Somewhere, deep inside, he was screaming out for help.
We decided together that we were both exhausted and drained, and agreed to terminate the call. He was ready now to just collapse into bed and he promised he would seek support and help from another veteran and his priest later that day. And I promised myself a small cry when I hung up, and a really good cry when I got home.
At last he had reached the point where I had developed enough confidence in him and his emotional state to be able to finally say "Goodbye".
When You Listen with Your Heart - ...it really doesn't matter who or what you are.Click thumbnail to view full-size
Another night it was a little child
...so frightened, so vulnerable.
From a public telephone - some distance from his home. And it was 2 a.m. on a cold and sad morning.
Something had woken him - and he got up. He found his mother lying on the floor in their Kitchen, unconscious, with an almost empty bottle of pills spilled over the floor.
Our help line number was on the table - perhaps his Mum had contemplated phoning before she overdosed? And though they had no phone themselves, somehow he knew he had to get help.
He was about 10 years old. This little hero grabbed his mother's purse, and - in his panic, ran all the way to the nearest phone, not thinking for a moment to keep himself safe and just go next door.
And so this night I listened - but differently than usual. This time I used a second phone - an emergency line to the police - and made him promise he would wait and listen to me getting help for him. And he did. And we kept talking until police and ambulance arrived to rescue both him and his mother.
The last part of the conversation that night was with a policeman. And much later, another call came in to the service to say that both were safe...thanks to the teamwork of all concerned.
How I hope that small hero grew up to never need that Help line again. But it was a comfort to know that if he ever should - he would know caring help is always at hand, 24 hours a day.
And an empathetic ear always ready to REALLY LISTEN.
Once it Was a Farmer
...who came home unexpectedly from night ploughing.
He found his wife in bed with another man.
He phoned sometime later. The other man had left, hurriedly. His wife had finally drunk and cried herself to sleep. He was contemplating a murder/suicide, and he had his trusty .22 rifle to do it with.
Self-disclosure by a counsellor is basically frowned upon - you are meant to stay with the caller and his/her problem - not add yours to the 'blend'. And yet, this one time, it seemed appropriate for him to know that I too, was a farmer's wife. And that I too, had experienced those endless, lonely, sleepless nights when your husband is in a paddock maybe miles away, working through the night, all alone with the dangers of boredom, and falling asleep with the monotony of the endless furrows, doing the job that must be continued until it is done.
I could not say I had made the choice his wife had...but I could help him to see that there were other solutions and that violence was not going to be the answer.
After more than an hour of talking, he kept several promises he made that night. The best was the message left for me next day that he was alive and seeking help and wanting to work out some answers with his wife.
One of the successful outcomes.
Not all were so good - and many were not known - just hoped and prayed for.
In the night of death, hope sees a star,
and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing.
Robert Green Ingersoll
And Sometimes it was Kids
...just 'razzing' the service
Maybe they had skipped school, or school was finished for the day, or they were unemployed, or they were just bored.
But as frustrating as it could be, and as much as you knew there may well be a truly desperate person trying to get through for crisis counselling, even these young callers needed handling with kid gloves (maybe with a firm hand inside!).
Because - each person has a story - and there was often some powerful reason why they were bored, why they were alone, why they were phoning the service at all.
It was always important to consider that there could well be an important problem behind the seemingly pointless 'presenting' reason for calling. These were extremely difficult times to use your best-learned listening skills.
But of course, that is what the training had all been about. Non-judgmental empathy.
LISTEN - ...you just may start a brand new day for someone.
Watched by the Eyes of Angels?
I thought I saw an angel
...and I did, I did,
These Angels left me a Blessing.
Now my Day is SO much Brighter