The moral life, the life that transforms lives, begins in the ear, in the act of listening.
— Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Listening: we take it so much for granted that we have forgotten how to recognize and appreciate its uncommon worth. We worry about what to do and what to say but not how to hear. Listening is the first language skill to be acquired by the child. Listening is a form of art. It requires long training and a lot of humility.1 We must do it for those who grieve. Active, involved listening leads to better understanding of others. Those who grieve need that understanding. Listening is a rare gift to give. Sometimes the most healing thing we can do is to listen, just listen.
For all of us, nothing is more important and interesting to oneself than one’s self. This is not mere selfish absorption. It also serves a necessary and self-protective function, like the human skin that guards and protects the physical body’s internal structures. This healthy self-regard serves as a barrier against external environmental damage. That environment is sometimes shocking, hostile, and unforgiving.
We love to talk about ourselves and want to be heard. We live together in an organized, interactional society. We are capable of influencing each other profoundly. Even the most isolated members of our society are aware of this. To be heard by others is affirming of the self. Especially when grieving, we need that positive attitude and support from others. Listening is nurturing.
When other people listen, we feel strengthened and encouraged. When they listen and sometimes ask pertinent follow-up questions, we believe they care. We experience the caring of others as protective of ourselves. “Don’t worry, I’ve got your back” is one of today’s common and colorful expressions of caring as protection. Being heard – really heard – is to feel protected.
Being heard and being loved are sometimes indistinguishable.
Listening in general has become a casualty. Listening is not a highly valued American communication skill.2 We say “how are you doing?” without the slightest concern for answers. It is not a proper question. It is a worthless phrase devoid of meaning. It is a tactless empty gesture, not an honest inquiry. No one waits for the answer, only perhaps (if at all) for a noise. It expresses no desire to be with another person. It shows no caring approach. It is irrelevant to relationship.
Listening to grief in particular is a hard job in our society, in our time. We don’t like to do it and we don’t know how. “Get over it” and “snap out of it” are our usual, preferred modes of response to the mourner. These are automatic, canned, demeaning replies that only express the fears and denial of the listener. They are hearing without listening. They are disrespectful, humiliating, and shaming. They are impossible commands – we don’t get over or snap out or hurry up – and by these words, the mourner knows that he goes alone and unheard. Un-understood.
We must learn to listen in order to understand, not just to answer back. Sometimes, even listening quietly, without answering in words, is the most helpful course of action. “The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent.’”3 It can allow the mourner to listen to himself more clearly, sympathetically. No “static” from the listener intervenes to disrupt the mourner’s efforts to calm himself and to heal. He may also feel safer just because of the listener’s quiet, accepting presence.4 Silence, too, is a form of speech. Used wisely, it can sometimes be better than speech.
Listen without judging. Accept without demanding change. These are meaningful and powerful traits. They value and honor the mourner’s feelings.
We suffer from an inability to listen deeply to ourselves, first of all. Denial is a primitive, frail defense, easily shattered. We define it as a deliberate, conscious, convenient “forgetting.” Its purpose is escape from pain. As a society, we use it too often and call it sufficient. It isn’t. That way ahead lies only greater pain when this defense fractures and fails. We need to reach within ourselves, far below the level of denial, to open ourselves to a sharper, finer, nuanced understanding of loss and grief. This is grief work. It welcomes pain for the sake of later peace.
We tend to live in a state of self-estrangement. We take the fragile façade as the essential self.
Introspection, the ability to listen to ourselves, is a lost art in contemporary American society. However, only this skill can truly inform our response to others who grieve. Only this way will we know what to do or not do, what to say or not say. Introspection and self-awareness finally become more decisive than all the sage advice on bereavement. Look within, inward.
We must ask ourselves a vital question: if I were you, what would I want or need most? It is a call to empathy, to the ultimate exercise of imagination. If I were you…
If I were you, what would I do? How would I feel? What would I want? Need?
These questions can never be answered completely. Yet, even though imperfect, the answers lead us to an understanding that best reflects the mourner at the moment of meeting.5 We see ourselves through the eyes of others. It is one reflection of who we are. In this way, the mourner sees that others are listening, and that means caring. That message is positive and consequential. It strongly affects the course of grief events for the mourner. It grants him safe and socially acceptable permission to feel and express pain. It allows him to more readily recognize and respect his own newly forming self – the self born of grief after loss. By this means, the listener’s self-concept is also enhanced. Helping helps the helper, too. It becomes a virtuous circle.
In short, this we know:
The value of listening is immeasurable and unlimited. It changes lives. It changes behavior.
Good listening is an active process of exerting energy to support another. The listener makes an effort to be with the other, to perceive the nature of the other’s grieving. Listening empathically is not a passive deed. It is a bold, thought-filled act of compassion.
To be good, we need insight – fearless, undeniable understanding of ourselves. That matters. It makes a difference. We help others best when we know ourselves. In this sense, helping is applied knowing.
Empathy is ethical, honorable, principled – and demanding. It is an integral part of good listening. Careful attention and effort are required.6
Learning to listen to ourselves and others is a lifelong process. We must respect the learning and the length. It’s worth it. As we come to know better, we will do better – and better.
Opportunities for instructive “second chances” are usually available, if we are willing. Every great listener was first a beginner who cared to take those chances and practiced.
We do not need to be masters of the art to listen well enough.
References & Notes:
1. Rabbi Jonathan H. Sacks, PhD, To Heal a Fractured World, New York: Schocken Books, 2005, p. 273.
2. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook, p. 5. http://www.sagepub.com/edwards/study/materials/reference/77593_5.1ref.pdf.”
3. Alfred Brendel, acclaimed Austrian pianist. Further source of citation unknown.
4. Research study showed that one of the two most helpful listening behaviors when interacting with the bereaved is presence (“being there”). The other is provision of the opportunity to ventilate.
Lehman, Ellard, & Wortman, “Social Support for the Bereaved: Recipients’ and Providers’ Perspectives on what is helpful,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1986, vol. 54, pp. 438-446.
5. In the case of listening to grief, the listener shares much in common with the nondirective client-centered counselor: “The counselor says in effect, ‘To be of assistance to you I will put aside myself – and enter into your world of perception as completely as I am able. I will become, in a sense, another self for you – an alter ego of your own attitudes and feelings – a safe opportunity for you to discern yourself more clearly, to experience yourself more truly and deeply, to choose more significantly.’”
Carl R. Rogers, PhD, Client-Centered Therapy, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1951, p. 35. ( Please see also: http://www.carlrogers.info/index.html )
6. White Paper: “Priorities of Listening Research,” sponsored by the International Listening Association (ILA): viewing listening as an ethical endeavor: this “might result in a definition of listening as a way of knowing and valuing the other.” p. 11. http://www.listen.org/Resources/Documents/White_Paper_PrioritiesResearch.pdf.
Please see also: website of the International Listening Association @ www.listen.org.
Distinguished psychologist/researcher Dr. Carl R. Rogers wrote on Listening:
“When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to re-perceive my world in a new way and to go on. It is astonishing how elements that seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens, how confusions that seem irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard. I have deeply appreciated the times that I have experienced this sensitive, empathic, concentrated listening.”
Rea Ginsberg is a retired director of social work services, hospice coordinator, and adjunct professor of clinical social work. She can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @rginsberg2.
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