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Do You Hear What I Hear?

The gift of listening to understand.

Key points

  • Listening to understand is a gift. And it's not easy to do.
  • We all want to "fix" because it's easier than sitting with pain, discomfort, or the unknown.
  • Validation of another's experience leads to empathy.
Mariana B/Unsplash
Source: Mariana B/Unsplash

I work in healthcare and have the privilege of listening to lots of patient stories from all walks of life. It’s an honor and a gift to be with patients and families at their most vulnerable and trying times. To be trusted as a safe, non-judgmental, open set of ears to listen without the pressure or the need to fix.

I’ll admit it: I’m a stubborn recovering fixer. If there’s a way to cut through the challenge, the pain, or the difficulty of a situation, I’m all over it. Like everyone else, I hate suffering. I hate unanswered questions and waiting and situations I can’t control (or make better). But if there’s anything I’ve learned from a morphing pandemic now screeching into its second arduous year, it’s a realization that sometimes it’s helpful to pause. To dial back on the focus from doing to being—to better understand what’s happening in us and around us.

The art of listening to understand.

Some important realizations: Your experience is valid. And so is everyone else’s.

Just because I might not like what I’m hearing, or feel threatened or saddened by it, doesn’t mean I can or should challenge another person’s experience. Invalidation kills empathy dead in its tracks, and it makes us feel more isolated and alone.

I’m a below knee amputee, and one of the things I noticed early on in the prosthetic fitting process is that the good prosthetists are the one who are the best listeners. Those of us who have been in the game long enough know this. Whenever your leg-guy invalidates your discomfort by telling you “you’ll get used to it" (pain/discomfort), “give it some time,” or “it’s in your head," a red flag pops up to consider ending the relationship, and to run — that is, if you have a running blade. If not, just kindly hop away.

Validation of experience is a balm to the soul. And a listening ear is a gift to any weary life traveler.

Resist the urge to give advice.

Advice-giving is usually more of a reflection of our inability to sit with discomfort. With the exception of healthcare professionals or peers struggling with similar issues, well-meaning suggestions often serve to isolate the other person or shut down connection. We all want to be heard, and words like can’t you just, why don’t you, or other similar sentiments take away the opportunity to understand another person’s experience more fully.

I struggle hearing so many people using the words “I know I should…” It seems folks constantly feel the pressure to prove their worth through what they do or accomplish. And if they’re doing well enough to just survive (as many of us do these days), they feel something is drastically wrong with them. I’m tempted to blame social media for this, but maybe not. It’s embedded in our culture—the same culture that has led to what we are now calling “the great resignation.” It's the collective experience that we're working so hard to prove something, while feeling disconnected, tired and invalidated.

Reserve judgment.

In the disability community, we worry about whining too much, not “rising above” adversity well enough, or failing to provide “inspiration” to others. On social media threads, I’ve seen judgment about returning to work or collecting disability benefits. On the parenting front, if I share my challenges, I worry that some mom will jump to some quick idea of how to do it better, or if I “just do it this way” all of my child’s behavioral challenges will miraculously melt away. I know I’m not alone. It can be exhausting.

While the perceived onslaught of comments can be completely imagined, it stems from a cultural obsession with moving away from discomfort. When what we really need to do is move closer — to listen more closely and more intensely, because it takes time to really understand what other people are going through.

Understand that sometimes, you just won’t understand—and that’s okay.

Every day I remind my family that things take longer for me to get going. If I switch shoes, I’ve got prosthetic foot adjustments to make, and I need to “walk it out” to see if things feel okay. I don’t expect anyone else to understand, other than fellow leg amputees. Yet they’ve gained a degree of empathy in learning how to wait for me — to take their jackets off and watch me amble about the dining room, trying to figure out if I’ve hit the walking “sweet spot” yet or not. I wish they truly understood how hard it can be sometimes, but I know that it’s impossible to really know what It’s like unless you’re living it.

And that’s the thing about empathy: Sometimes we can’t or won’t understand. But we can be present to each other and we can listen. Even if we know we’ll never truly “get it,” we can always try. And that’s all that we can do.

In this season of busyness, it’s important to realize that the best gift we can give one another is our presence. The opportunity to listen and to learn and to grow from one another is truly the gift of the season.

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