“The first duty of love is to listen.”
— Paul Tillich
I’m sitting across from a friend in a crowded café. We haven’t seen each other in a long time and we have lots to fill each other in on. She goes first, and I listen intently.
The food finally arrives, and she takes a pause, ‘anyway, enough about me. How’s everything with you?’ I begin to tell her about a significant event that happened in my personal, and professional life. Something that is leading me one step closer to a career in Art Therapy. I talk about the self-doubt thought process that I often face and how I’m proud of myself for doing it anyway. But before I can continue, I am interrupted with a barrage of ideas on what could be holding me back, things to read and consider, how to remain positive, etc.
The advice confuses me. I merely pointed out my usual inner dialogue, and how it did not hold me back this time. It’s not only this particular friend who does this, it happens with a few others too. In general, I find it rather hurtful to be interrupted, but even more so when it’s for advice that I never asked for. I start to wonder if it’s because I’m learning how completely invalidating it is to give people advice, or if it’s because it’s revealing a part of my ‘shadow’ self that I don’t like. Perhaps, and likely, it’s both.
As a bit of background, I’m currently studying Art Therapy. A lot of people tend to think of Art Therapy in terms of adult colouring books, but it’s actually using art as a base to explore and work through psychological difficulties. Similar to any therapeutic environment, being an Art Therapist involves suspending your life – opinions, judgements, current life situations – to become entirely present and focused on the person in front of you. It might sound easy in theory, but it’s unbelievably difficult. When I practice with a classmate, I can feel parts of myself race in like a herd of horses, desperate to unleash my sage advice or relate to them with how I once felt similar. It feels strange to hold back and remind myself that this is not about me, it’s about them. It’s about entering into their world, understanding how they see things, and putting my beliefs aside. It involves sitting with the discomfort and awkward silences, bearing witness to the person tearing up and not doing anything about it other than sitting quietly with them.
The whole idea of sitting with someone as they cry has to be one of the hardest things. It’s like watching someone fall in slow motion and just standing there with your arms crossed. It feels completely unnatural not to help. But at the same time, I have seen how deeply healing it is to let a person just be; to give them space to express the emotion and let it wash through them. Not to rush in and ease the pain, not to offer advice or ways to see things differently or how to cheer up. Simply being there is so much more powerful than words could ever be.
Maybe it sounds too naïve, but I wonder how different things would be if we listened more to the people around us? Practicing these skills in class and watching the person unfold has been so illuminating. It’s brought a heightened sense of awareness to what listening really is, and how rare it is. I realise that people who offer advice are just trying to help. But this, to me, is what it translates to: ‘speak no further! I know what is right and this is what you need to do!’ Instead of, ‘I’m sorry to hear you’re going through that, how can I help you?’ In the former it becomes about you; in the latter it becomes about them. This is an important distinction if your goal is to help a person feel seen and heard.
As a recovering advice-giver, I know how hard it is. I still find myself jumping in with advice without even realising. It’s like my brain is on autopilot. But the times I do remember, I feel something different with the person. It really is surprising how much listening with your two ears and one silent mouth can change everything.
Don’t believe me? Try it. Let me know how it went and what you noticed – your ideas, opinions and advice are welcome 😉