I don't know about you, but I can probably do a better job listening. The problem with listening is that it is so easy not to do. As much as I like to believe that I am an excellent, well, adequate listener, I know that this is not always true. And I listen to people for a living. More than just the receiving of words and sounds, listening requires us to give our full attention to something other than ourselves. Listening draws us closer; it invites us into an intimate dance with the speaker.
The fundamental paradox of listening is that it requires that we bring all of us to the moment and keep ourselves out the way, simultaneously. Active listening requires us to pay attention to body language and tone of voice. It necessitates that we not only notice but honor silence. To listen effectively, we need to have a sufficient level of self-awareness. We must know what someone can say that will trigger sadness, anger, or joy within us. We need to be aware of which subjects make us uncomfortable or defensive. Ideally, we do this so that we can admit in what situations listening will be difficult for us.
As a chaplain, listening means that I hear words, notice movement in the body, and discern the emotions behind what is being said. I am trained to listen, and I usually do well. But I know there is always room for growth. Self-reflection after visits helps me identify my growing edges, such as limits to my emotional availability, my innate desire to fix and sometimes control, and other barriers to listening. I recognized a wall in my ability to listen during a not so recent visit. Sherry was visiting her mother, Deborah. Deborah, who was my patient, was near the end of life. As Sherry talked, she shared that her mother had overcome so many obstacles, from addition to abuse, and had finally "gotten herself together." Sherry explained that she and her mother were just becoming reacquainted because "she walked out on us when we was kids when she was on that stuff." But Sherry explained that she had forgiven her mother and was looking forward to them spending time together since we're both "clean now." During the visit, Sherry mentioned her siblings several times and how they haven't spoken in years, and she was disappointed because they were not present. "How could they not be here?" she asked with what I perceived as disgust in her voice.
Instead of allowing Sherry the space to grieve, I tried to explain that her siblings might also be grieving, but in a different way. My desire to defend her siblings' absence was my own need. When she mentioned her disappointment in them because they were not present, I thought about my relationship with my father and how I had not always been present in his life. And while none of my siblings have ever said nor do I believe they feel it, I've always feared that maybe they thought I didn't care during the years I stayed away. I wanted Sherry to know that just because I wasn't, I mean, just because they weren't present doesn't indicate a lack of love for their mother.
If I had been able to acknowledge the barrier within myself, I might have been able to move it out of the way long enough to listen to what she was saying to me. She had spent the majority of her life estranged from her mother and siblings. And just as they begin a new relationship, her mother ends up in the hospital. And her siblings are not only absent from her mother's bedside, but they are also missing from her side. Imagine the hope she felt after reuniting with her mother. Over 40 years apart, but here is their second chance. Reuniting with her mother may have invited the dream of reunification with her siblings. And within the next few hours, her mother will be gone. How could I miss the heaviness of her grief? Once again, she is alone- no mother and no siblings. While she didn't say, "I don't feel like you are listening to me," she would not have been wrong if she had done so. I missed it.
During this visit, it was my defensiveness, but there are other barriers to listening well, like selfishness, control, and fear. Do you know what obstacles hinder your listening? I know how I feel when someone is not listening to me. I feel disregarded- like I don't matter. And who wants to talk when you don't feel valued? But when I know that someone is listening to me, I feel affirmed and appreciated and willing to share.
This coronavirus has us practicing social distance, but we are still making contact with our patients and still reaching out to and hearing from our congregation. We are still having conversations with our lovers, our friends. How well are you listening during those interactions? Sometimes you can read body language because you are on the phone, but are you paying attention to the tone of voice? Are you rushing through the silence? Are you distracted? And yes, I know we are dealing with plenty of distractions.
Notwithstanding the distractions, as pastoral and spiritual care practitioners, our communities need to know that someone is listening as they try to navigate their way through disruption, discomfort, disease, and death. We are someone. And when we listen, we are saying, “I see you.” And who among us doesn’t want to be seen?
J. Frederika Eaddy
I'm a grief and loss navigation specialist. I love reading, preaching, 90's hip-hop, poetry, pink lipstick, Rizpah and shoes. I believe in Black Girl Magic, that Black people need therapy and that Black Lives Matter. #PhillyJawn $DaChaplain