Are you really listening, or just hearing noise?
Really listening to someone is a skill, very few have it naturally, but it can be learned. When you’re in pain and you know it won’t go away if just you do A, B or C, this you know because you’ve tried them already, what you really need is someone not to suggest all of the above, that you’ve already tried, but to just listen.
When I started as volunteer for Childline we were told we would learn how to listen in a very different way. We all sat there thinking, mmm isn’t that why we are here, because people tell us we are good listeners (among other reasons)… but we were to be proved wrong before the two months of training was over. We would indeed learn to listen differently. Listening doesn’t involve fixing, and that’s the key. For the majority of people when they hear a problem they want to fix it, it’s a natural instinct to want to help, to come up with a solution. But sometimes you just need to listen. As our supervisor told us, any conversation with a child should be 80% listening and 20% talking.
It’s not an easy thing to learn surprisingly. Offering solutions is a hard habit to break. When I read the messages from other women in the EAI group, (someone is always struggling with some aspect of this charming disease on any given day!), your instinct is to row with in with suggestions and ideas, and it’s a great source of information and support, don’t get me wrong. But having asked some questions myself on bad days, it was often the brief one-line answers of support that I actually appreciated the most, because just like the children on the phone, all you want to know is that you are not alone.
Childline is non-judgemental and non-directive. That’s what the children are told at the very start of every call. It’s not about a group of adults on one end of the phone telling a child what s/he should do in a particular situation. It’s about empowering that child to find the solution themselves, and sometimes it’s just about letting that child know there is always someone there who will listen. People often think oh that must be all sad stories, a depressing reflection of all that’s wrong in society, why would you want to listen to that? In reality more often than not, it’s just a child who needs someone to hear them and listen. Ask them how they feel about the situation, what would they like to see change? What would the best possible outcome be for them? And equally the worst? Then they can decide for themselves what they feel comfortable doing next. They learn that they have options.
When I first went on the phones by myself (just to clarify there were other volunteers in the room), I found it terrifying, each time the phone would ring, who would be on the other end? Sometimes it was an angry child, sometimes a scared one, how would I know what to say? But the training kicks in, and you get better at it. You learn about verbal nods, and open questions, how to deal with silence, and how to put feeling into your tone of voice. It’s not always a bad story. Many children just want to tell someone about their day, and for whatever reason they don’t have someone at home to do that with. So I learned to listen. Most importantly I learned not to offer solutions, because at the end of the day I couldn’t make any promises, I couldn’t guarantee any outcomes. I could tell them they had the right to be safe, the right to be happy and to be loved, and if any of those things were missing in their lives, it most certainly wasn’t their fault.
When you live with someone who has a chronic illness, someone in chronic pain, you need to do a lot of listening, and you also need to learn the value of silence, not to be afraid of it. Sometimes it’s just enough to have someone there. When you have chronic pain, it’s there every day, just where you are on the scale varies. I wake up every morning with a pain in my side, usually about 3am, I wake up multiple times in fact. Some mornings I have to roll sideways out of the bed and I feel like a little old lady. 15 mintues later after walking around the house and having a chat with the dog I’m back to normal, but the pain is still there, it just slid down the scale. I could go all day some days without really noticing or without it bothering me, it seems my friend Pain is a bit of a night owl! I currently live by myself so if I get up 5 times in a night it doesn’t bother anyone, for those of us who share a bed…well it’s a little more awkward isn’t it… I can imagine if you are the other person and it’s the 3rd time you’ve been woken, albeit unintentionally, it’s instinctive to offer to do something, to make a warm drink, nuke a heatbag or sleep in the spare room. But really all you have to do is listen for a few minutes, or give that person a hug so they know you are there.
With all the focus on mental health at the moment, the key message there too is about listening. When someone isn’t in a good place for whatever reason, be it physical, mental or emotional pain, they need to know that they have a safe place to talk about it, where they won’t be judged, where they won’t be told what to do, that they will just be heard.
It took a while and quite a number of calls to learn the value of listening. The call that affected me most wasn’t the worst call I’ve listened to in the last two years but just the one that stayed with me for a long time afterwards. A teenage girl, who had lost her mother, she was well looked after by her dad, he cared about her and they were close. She was quiet at school, but she had friends. She started her call that day by apologising that she didn’t have a problem as such. In fact she was a normal teenage girl with a crush on a boy at school. She didn’t feel comfortable talking about it with her dad, she didn’t want to bother him, but it was a big thing to her all the same. She missed her mum because she thought she would have told her had she been alive. We talked about a lot of different things that night, how she felt, why she liked him, what she thought she might do about it, if anything at all. In fact she didn’t want it to go any further than a crush, it was the first positive, happy thing in her life since her mum had died and she just wanted to hold onto it for a little bit, not burst the bubble. She also wanted to share it someone, her friends might have told him, she was worried she might upset her dad in case he thought it was a trivial thing, but she wanted to tell someone. By the end of the call the quiet voice was a little stronger, and you could hear a smile had crept into her voice. She said she had better go as she was worried other children with more serious things might be trying to get through. She was a good kid, going through a tough period in her life, but wanted to focus on that one little good thing she had. She said by telling someone else (albeit Childline) it made it really, and thinking about it made her smile. She thanked me for listening and it was a positive outcome to the call. I went home that night feeling both sad for her and her current situation, but not worried about her. It made smile as I thought back to when I was age and a crush on some equally unattainable boy in the class.
That night I learned a valuable lesson about listening, it wasn’t about bringing her mum back, it wasn’t even about her relationship with her dad, it was just about listening, really listening, and making that experience a valid one in her life. Sometimes that’s all anyone needs, is someone to validate or recognise what they are going through, be it good or bad.