What if we learn to just listen?

By Dr. Bikat Sahle

My wise mentor used to say “Not everybody needs therapy, but everybody needs a therapeutic experience”.

How do people get a therapeutic experience outside of a therapist/doctor’s office? When a trusted friend genuinely listens to one’s hurts and worries and not judge him/her, keep the secret shared in confidence, and express empathy and understanding, this can be therapeutic to a suffering person. It may be a family member, a soulmate, or a best friend, a caring person can provide emotional relief by just listening to another’s honest emotions. Just listening.

In places where psychotherapy resources are not available or commonly utilized, the only way people may get relief from emotional stress can be by talking with their friends and family members, mentors, or other lay counselors. People can be hesitant to share their stress and grief when they don’t have a trustworthy person who can really listen to them. Thus, having good listening skills can allow people to feel safe and share their struggles with others.

What does it take to be a good listener? 

Active listening. Active listening is a way of listening with full attention by giving verbal and nonverbal cues to show that you are really attending to what is being said. Verbally, repeating back what the person is saying helps the person feel that we are really listening. Non-verbally, by maintaining good eye contact and a caring posture we can show the person that we are listening. Most of the time, unfortunately, when we listen we often are waiting for our turn and thinking about a response. In active listening, however, the goal is to really understand what is being said and not responding. 

Understand the feeling first before helping. When people express their feelings, we may feel that they need an answer that we rush to give them different explanations for why, for example, they lost their job or they were diagnosed with terminal illness, or lost their loved one. This desire to comfort others out of compassion is a good thing, but the most helpful first step could be to just understand and sit with them in their grief. They may just need a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and not someone who tell them the reason why this happened.  When we listen, we are sitting next to the person as an equal, as a friend. When we are quick to say we know why this happened, we are putting ourselves above them as if we are God. Giving help on the practical level is an admirable thing, but it is also good to take time to listen and to be with others in their confusion and unanswerable questions. 

Empathy. When we are quick to think of a solution or advice for someone else’s problem, often times it is because we are not imagining ourselves in their position. We may tell a person to let go of their emotions about a loss (death) of their child, but want them to hear our feelings about our sick child. There may be time when we have to tell others our perspective on things, BUT only after we put ourselves in their place, understand their feelings, and express that we are sorry about it. 

Holding judgment. When people share their honest feelings, we may judge their feelings and thoughts as if they are bad people.  Whether it is sadness, hurt, or anger, it is good to let others have their feelings without trying to convince them to stop the feeling. In fact, feelings go away when you express them, not when you suppress them. As Karol Truman eloquently put it, “Feelings buried alive never die”. Expressing feelings honestly and appropriately is healthy. 

Having good character to keep secret.  If people were able to find a friend that they can truly trust with their struggles and secrets, many may share their stressors rather than carrying them alone. When people feel confident that their friend will keep their private information in confidence, they will open their heart and share their deep fears and challenges. Keeping a friend’s secret is a sign of good character.  

Mutual support.  If one person is always listening and the other one is always sharing, this imbalance can create frustration and resentment in the person who is always listening. The exception will be a paid counselor or therapist, or a parent-child relationship.  It is good to be mutually supportive and share each other’s burden, instead of focusing on just one person. In addition, it is good to have limits. If what the person is sharing is too stressful and too much to handle, it is good to be honest and encourage the person to see a professional counselor.

In summary, listening is a gift that we give to a grieving friend and loved one. It can do a lot of good to others in giving relief so its worthwhile to put the effort to develop the skill. This kind of listening not only helps a struggling person, but it also improves communication and enhances understanding between families, friends, coworkers, business partners, etc. Listening to one’s problems is important even when the person’s situation doesn’t have a solution.

People sometimes just need a listening ear. And we actually have more than one!

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About Tenayistilign

I am a physician trained at Jimma Institute of Health Sciences ( now Jimma University, in Jimma, Ethiopia) and Wayne State University ( Detroit, MI, USA). I teach and practice General Nephrology/Hypertension and Kidney Transplantation in the USA.
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5 Responses to What if we learn to just listen?

  1. Aklilu Demessie says:

    Dr. Bikat,
    This is a very insightful and instructive article. In some cultures however, people do not completely discuss their issues freely. They leave out details that if truly expressed, would make the healing process a lot simpler. This may lead the listener into reading between the lines, preventing or slowing the honest exchange of imformation that is beneficial to the person with the problem. For example, a person may lose his/her job and as a result get depressed or angry, but find it hard to share this predicment with friends. This is true for the most part in the culture I come from. Great job!

    • becky says:

      I understand sharing personal issues is unommon in our culture. But in times of struggles, people need to share so that they can heal. Our secretiveness may be a “goji bahil”? Of course it is good to have limits and know what to share with whom. But carrying life’s challenges all alone can be unhealthy.

  2. Addis says:

    Thank you for sharing surafel It’s true I think I am a good listener:-)

  3. Becky says:

    Thank you. Thoughts and comments on how this may or may not work in our cultural framework are welcome.

  4. IW says:

    Thank you and God bless you Bikat. It is a great educational summary.

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