The Call to Listening

People tell me I am a good listener. But it doesn’t always come naturally. I am a shy person, and sometimes, I am too caught up in my own worries and fears—especially, “How am I coming across?”—to listen well. 

            But when I started freelancing for newspapers in 2010-11 and began interviewing, I found I had a base for listening: therapy. You see, I had been listened to, in countless therapy sessions, by wise, practiced and compassionate people. This was an amazing gift, and I realize how privileged I was to experience it.

But I never anticipated that years of therapy would serve me in my work as a journalist. Therapy was to work the kinks out of me, I thought—not to teach job skills. 

            Yet soon, as I embarked on a career in journalism that would include a stint as a staff writer at a daily newspaper, I was flipping the tables in my interviews. I was asking open-ended questions. I was rephrasing what my subject said. I was slipping in subtle signs of affirmation, like nods and sounds of “uh huh” to indicate that I was still listening. Sometimes, I would offer up a small detail about myself to create a sense of connection: I remember telling a retired English teacher that I had been an English major in college.

It worked. The gift of listening translated.

And I enjoyed interviewing tremendously. It has been my greatest privilege to listen to stories from old and young, poor and wealthy, gay and straight, entrepreneurs, ministers, educators, politicians and recovering addicts. Their stories taught me—about endurance and perseverance, about picking up the pieces and going on, about taking risks and learning from mistakes. I remember interviewing a recovering heroin addict who told me that she didn’t reflect on the past with regret—she just moved forward in the present, day by day.   

I remember discussing that story with my therapist. I told him that my life was so different than this young woman’s. And yet, I saw the similarities. Both of us had been overtaken by large forces that had decimated our lives. Both of us had made destructive choices that damaged relationships. Both of us had picked up the pieces and moved forward, rebuilding our lives in the face of steep odds.   

“Substance abuse is a mental illness, just as bipolar is,” my therapist pointed out. “Does the empathy you feel make you better journalist, a better teller of her story?”

“Yes,” I replied. “That’s what mental illness has taught me.”     

These days, I am not working as a journalist. Instead, I am a communications coordinator for a nonprofit. But I still must be attentive—to the language of coworkers, donors, volunteers and clients. I believe therapy and a caring family have enabled me to become more attentive—I am able to give the gift of listening because people are giving it to me.

This is our calling for a calloused world—to listen.   

So, pause. Take time out of your day for a loved one. Make the effort to be with someone without solving his or her problems. Listen.

At the same time, find a listener for yourself. This person doesn’t have to be a therapist—just a true friend, a caring spouse, a wise neighbor. Allow yourself the gift of being listened to without judgment, without someone trying to fix you or make it all better.  

Maybe then you can translate listening and being-listening-to into activism—whether it is repairing something for a neighbor, teaching a child or speaking out against stigma. Love is both quiet and bold.

Each one of our loved ones and neighbors has a story, and it is our responsibility to learn from these stories. It also is our responsibility to share our own stories.
Only then can we begin to fix what is broken in our world.    


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