Practice the art of listening today. Instead of coming to every conversation with a list of your own woes, or with rebuttals or comments to make on what other people say, simply listen to them. Listening is different from simply hearing. Hearing is the physical process of your ears processing sound, but listening–real listening–involves putting your whole self into the conversation–being mindful of the other’s presence, and attending to what is being said. Someone can tell you are listening when you focus on them (and not on your cup of coffee or someone across the room whom you want to talk to next), and when you can “mirror back” what they are saying. Try it out. When someone says something to you–especially if they are sharing something painful or frustrating, you could say something like, “So, if I’m hearing you right, what you’re saying is…” or “I think I understand that what you’re saying is…”
True listening also involves not judging what is being said, or coming back with your own perspective right away. The worst things you can say to someone who is in turmoil are “That’s just silly!” or “So you think you’ve got problems…” and then launching into a laundry list of your own issues. Friends don’t come to you to have a battle over who has the worst life, they just want to listen. When the time is right, after you’ve helped your friend by really listening to them, then you can share your issues and problems.
Friends who truly listen also don’t give advice, but are willing to recommend resources or professionals who may be able to help. While listening to someone else, you may recall a book you’ve read or a TV show you’ve seen that was particularly helpful for you in a similar situation. Don’t try to force your favorite self-help guru on someone just because he/she has been helpful to you–really listen, and discern if this person’s needs would best be met by the self-help resource you’re thinking of. (Not everyone finds Dr. Phil to be helpful, and if a friend comes to you with a problem about their son’s drinking, you probably don’t want to recommend “I’m O.k., You’re O.k.” as a resource.) The art of referral is a good practice. “Would you like to speak with your pastor about this?” or, if they don’t have a pastor, “May I take you to meet my pastor?” are good ways to refer someone. Never tell someone that they need a doctor or a psychiatrist without making sure that you preface your statement with the concern that what they are bringing to you is of greater import than you can handle alone. And most of all, don’t try to handle major life issues on your own if you’re not a trained professional. Referring a friend is not a sign of weakness, but a sign that you have truly listened to him or her and are concerned about what concerns them.
If you practice this type of deep listening, you may find yourself becoming one of those people who people identify as a “good listener,” and you might just find yourself becoming overwhelmed with the issues of your friends and family. Don’t forget to have a friend with whom you can speak from time to time. This type of circle of mutual listening is what we mean when we talk about community.