Helping Others with Active Listening


Anna is dealing with a chronic illness and can’t make an impact on the world by investing energy in service work or organizing an event. A simple encounter on her block showed her that through active listening, she can still help others in a way that is no less important than community development.

This winter, I passed an older woman on my walk around the block. She was shoveling, slowly and with immense effort, the few inches of snow that had fallen on her sidewalk. It wasn’t much snow, but she looked exhausted, and I wanted to say something to acknowledge her effort, so I said, “Pretty heavy snow today, huh?” Yes, it was, she agreed.

And then suddenly she started telling me more, one detail leading into the next, like she’d been bottling it all up for months: She’s all on her own to deal with the shoveling because her husband died five years ago. She is thinking about moving into an apartment. She really should, she said — she can’t keep up with things like she used to, but hates to leave the house behind. Apartments have so little character, and she’s lived in that house for 55 years. And after all, she had no idea how would she even go about starting to sell it. Maybe, she concluded in a kind of frustration, it’s not even worth the effort.

A few inches of snow on the one hand, and the house where her children were born and grew up on the other. What a choice that must be to grapple with.

“I’m 27,” I said. “It’s hard for me to even imagine 55 years worth of life. My life is all beginnings right now.” She was happy for me. I offered to finish shoveling for her, but she was almost finished. I told her that I admired her wisteria vine, which drapes over her dining room window and drips its gorgeous purple blossoms down the glass for one precious week in the summer. She said it’s been there almost as long as she has. She used to climb up on the roof to trim it.

We exchanged names, and I kept walking. I haven’t seen her again since, but I wonder about her.

What a lot of life she told me about in an encounter that lasted barely five minutes. What a lot of unspoken fear, grief, and pain. She wasn’t feeling sorry for herself, or dumping all the details on me. She didn’t want anything at all from me, but I realized that stopping to engage her offered something important — it gave her an unspoken invitation to put something of herself into words. I simply listened, and I know she was grateful for that.

That’s not nothing.

I couldn’t solve her problems, but I could be there and listen to her as she worked all those thoughts and fears into language. Language is such a powerful thing, but talking doesn’t mean much if nobody is listening. Language needs two people for it to work its magic.

Listening seems passive, doesn’t it? After all, you’re just standing there — it hardly seems like an action at all, but it is. In a conversation, the speaker and the listener both play a role.

And listening is a skill. You learn to identify what, of all that a speaker says, is most important to them. And if you reflect that understanding back to them, it helps them see themselves more clearly. To listen is to become a mirror — a mirror that shows the speaker that they’ve been heard, which is to say that they’ve been received, that there’s a place in you for their experience. It’s an act of generosity and hospitality, and you need to care to do it well.

Even though we forget, we all have a sense of the gift that listening is. Haven’t you ever had a problem you needed to work out or a fear you needed to work through — and maybe you sat your partner down, or your roommate, and said, “I just need to bounce these thoughts off somebody”? It’s such an effective way to work out a problem, even if you’re the only one doing the talking, even (perhaps especially) when all they can offer is understanding rather than advice or answers. We all want to feel heard. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s bigger than we think.

I can’t do much for people during this time of my life. Between a chronic illness and raising children, I don’t see myself volunteering any time at the soup kitchen any time soon. But still, I want to help people. I see how much they hurt, and sometimes the immensity of their hurt hurts me too. I want to make it better. But of course, that’s not something we can usually do for even the people we love, let alone strangers.

I’m so grateful, then, for this one thing that all of us can do to make a real impact in somebody’s life: cultivating the habit of active listening. You won’t see the results. They won’t thank you; they won’t gush about how you’ve changed their life. Still, active listening is real and powerful, and it leaves a mark on the world.

Even when you don’t say a word, listening is the language of love — and love is the only way, in the end, that wounds are healed.

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