I believe in the power of being heard. In our culture we spend a lot of time talking, but how much time do we spend listening? If no one is listening, is anyone hearing? In college I had the opportunity to take public speaking courses, but I never once saw a course on public listening. I am afraid that rather than hearing, most of us are just waiting for our next opportunity to talk.
Take, for instance, our memories of September 11th. I’ve noticed that when the subject comes up, almost everyone has a compulsive need to relate the terror, disbelief, pain, and humbling they experienced on and around that day. The problem for me was that, rather than holding space for others while they told their story, I was jumping up and down inside my own skin, waiting for my moment in the spotlight. Sharing pain is a quick route to creating community, but I was so busy waiting to tell, that I only listened on a superficial level. I was not taking the time to properly listen, to acknowledge – to hear another person. When I finally took the floor, I received treatment in-kind… these conversations often included interruptions that began, “Oh that’s okay, just listen to what happened to me!”
The strange thing was that it didn’t matter how many times I had told my story before. The catharsis of telling was never enough; it was the catharsis of being heard that I unknowingly sought. I believe this lack of satisfaction, this basic feeling of not being heard, perpetuates the need to continue telling the story.
My catharsis finally came last year when I sat down with a newspaper journalist for an interview about my work. I was leading a group of breast cancer survivors in publicly telling their stories of disease and recovery. As part of the interview, the conversation turned to how my experience of September 11th led me to my new line of work. A journalist is a professional listener, and for the first time, I felt heard. She didn’t interrupt me or compare my experience unfavorably to hers. She listened fully and acknowledged my experience for what it was – mine. She included my September 11th story in her article, and again I had the experience of knowing that I was heard by each person who read that article. Suddenly my compulsive need to continue telling that particular story disappeared. It is still a part of me, still a touchstone that I explore and, yes, periodically tell. But now I have the space inside myself to sit calmly and with respect to really hear other people’s tellings of their stories. I hope that I am passing on to them the same gift this journalist gave to me.
I believe that when we remember how to hear each other, we will take a great step toward reclaiming our sense of community.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.