How to Be a Supportive Listener by Asking One Important Question
Humans are hard wired for compassion and caring. We need each other to survive and thrive. According to University of California, Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, our brains are hardwired to feel compassion. “We’re wired to care. If you feel pain, a part of your brain lights up, and if you see someone have physical pain that same part of your brain lights up,” he says.
Mirror neurons play a part as well. They are part of the brain wiring that allow us to feel empathy. You see someone in pain, either emotionally or physically and you have the inclination and desire to reach out and offer comfort and support. I consider it “contagious emotion.” Imagine walking into a room in which people are laughing, smiling and enjoying each other’s company. How are you likely to feel? Likely, no matter what mood you were in when you entered, your spirits would be lifted by being in the presence of these happy campers. On the flip side, you open a door behind which people are sad, even if you didn’t know anyone there and the reason for their tears, you might take on some of their feelings, particularly if you are an empath with the tendency to absorb the emotions of others. You might be tempted to either offer solace to those there or flee from the scene lest you succumb to the sadness.
Many of us are professional, privileged listeners. I place therapists, doctors, nurses, cab drivers, clergy, hairdressers and bar tenders in that category. We hear stories of celebration and challenge, triumph and trauma. Even when I am off duty, I am still approached by family, friends and sometimes even strangers who know what I do for a living, asking for a listening ear or pick my social worker’s Rolodex brain for answers or resources. That is when I contemplate this concept that I saw in a meme recently that spoke to the paradigm of how to respond when someone tells us they have feelings that need to be given voice. It was created by cartoonist and Inspirista Liz Argall and it contains “amorphous blobs,” genderless beings sans arms and legs; essentially line drawings. The one that jumped out at me had one character say to another, “I have a sad.” The simple and brilliant response contained this question, “Are you looking for solutions or comfort?”
Solutions or comfort are equally valid options. Sometimes we need one before the other. This consummate co-dependent caregiver who would often practice savior behavior impulsively launched into the first since it came naturally. Wanting to fix, save, heal, cure and kiss the boo boos to make them better, made me feel better. I didn’t stop to think how the other person might view my intervention.
Often, we need to sit with our emotions before we do anything to change them. It is hard to heal what we can’t feel. Even as a therapist, I may eschew my own messy feelings and go for the resolution. As it often does, the issues may go under cover for a bit but, inevitably, it will resurface if not faced directly.
I acknowledge a second reason for fixing what seems amiss is that it is difficult to see another suffer. As I become more at ease with my own lack of ease, I am better able to be a fully present listener.
A few months ago, I was speaking with a dear friend who has since passed, about the many and varied challenges she faced with regard to the cancer that was eating away at her despite mainstream medical, holistic and spiritual interventions. At the same time, she was also looking for alternative housing since she could no longer remain where she was. Lastly, she wanted to maintain some semblance of normalcy, getting out of the house as she had the energy to do, which was rare and fleeting.
We were on the phone and I asked, as I had before whether she wanted answers or just for me to listen, which mirrored Liz Argall’s queries. She said she wanted both. First, she just wanted me to hold space for her to vent. She had done that for me on numerous occasions over the 10+ years of our friendship. Then she asked for ideas for getting past the dilemmas. I admit that I was at a loss, since I sensed the inevitable, but didn’t tell her that, as I felt it would dishearten her.
In my own moments of contemplation, I “knew” that she would make her exit from her body before she would have to leave her home. I did my best to continue to ask what would fully serve her. Since she was understandably anxious about her future and what it would hold, my questions were along the lines of step by step instruction, since as a nursing home and home care social worker who had walked folks through this journey, I had the tools. She had been a home care nurse, so we spoke the same language.
We would toggle back and forth between both needs; one for comfort and validation of her own emotional roller coaster ride and the other to handle the practical details of her day to day life. It was a delicate dance, not wanting to step on her toes and take over, even though she had named me, along with her sister, her medial powers of attorney. On occasion, I would remind her that I wanted to make decisions with her and not for her. Toward the end, that did indeed happen. I still listened, but also acted.
How to Be a Comfort Giver
- Keep your listening ears open and speaking mouth closed, initially.
- Lean in and make eye contact.
- Touch if it is welcome.
- Allow yourself to feel whatever arises for you.
- Know that you don’t have to be “strong,” sometimes crying with the person provides solace for them so they know they are not alone.
- Don’t launch into your own “me too” story. This is time for them.
- Don’t take over unless you are asked to.
- Ask questions to clarify what they need.
- Don’t impose your beliefs (spiritual or otherwise) on them.
- Avoid platitudes such as “They are in a better place,” if someone has died, or “You can get pregnant again,” if a miscarriage has occurred.
- Hold space for their full range of emotions, but set your boundaries so that you don’t feel put upon or abused.
- If you don’t know what to say, tell them that. Ask if you can simply sit with them.
- Your full presence can be the greatest gift.