How can we reach out to others if we don’t know what they are going through? Most of the listening we offer and receive is more passive than it should be. While passive listening allows a person to hear and react on cue, active listening involves listening to each word, imagining the driving emotions behind what is being said and relaying what you hear the speaker saying back to them. Active listening encourages us to tune in— to connect more deeply and thus engage compassionately.
Unknown to us, our adolescent child was co-suffering with her friend who was being bullied at school. This was finally communicated to us as “I am not happy at school and would be happy if I were at my friend’s school”. With active listing, we found out that the real reason was not unhappiness but out of compassion, she wanted to be there to help. She said “I don’t care about my feelings, I just want my friend to be happy”. The happy ending to the story was that the friend’s parents were able to get the help they needed for their child.
The pain we feel when someone else suffers is real suffering too. Yet, we don’t actually ease that suffering in ourselves. When we empathize, we are able to look for ways to reduce the other’s suffering as well as our own. When we reach out to let them know that we suffer too when they suffer – that can be a transformative thing.
The more we practice active listening, the better we get at reading emotions from words, tone and also from facial expressions. Becoming an active listener not only increases empathy levels, it also helps to create positive feelings in the speaker. A University of New Brunswick study found that people who previously reported feeling misunderstood or felt not heard, found more fulfillment when speaking with a person who practiced active listening.
Let us see if we can pay attention to the people in our lives, even strangers. Notice the signs of pain, empathize with suffering people, understand them because we have experienced suffering too. Reach out to them, and connect if we can. Smile, be open to who they are, let go of expectations and just connect. If we can share ways that we have suffered, that the other person can relate to, this in itself will be helpful. Sharing solutions can be useful, as a solution or a jumping off point. Not to be preachy, but just sharing what worked for us. Just as we can share with others our methods of easing suffering, if others have solved a problem similar to one that’s causing us suffering, it can be helpful to learn how they coped. By sharing and learning from each other, we can get better at compassion skills.
“I believe that in this new world that we live in, we often have a responsibility, you know, to actually go beyond the thou shalt nots – that is, the not harming others – and say we can help others and we should be helping others.” – Peter Singer
humor: where do polar bears vote? At the North Pole 🙂