The power of listening

I’ve been a Youthline helpline counsellor now for about two years.   This year I joined the mentors’ team and for the past six months I’ve taken on my own trainees, listening to their calls and mentoring them through their training to become solo phone counsellors themselves.

It’s been an incredible amount of fun.  The type of people who come to Youthline tend to be the good sort.  Like most, I came to the organisation with a genuine interest in helping others…and ended up integrated into an awesome and supportive community of like-minded people.  I value the personal and professional development I’ve gained there and, even more, the friends that I’ve made.

But this isn’t a recruitment drive for volunteers!  I wanted to write about something I’ve learned in my time there.  Something that has turned out to be a very powerful lesson for me.

I’ve learned how to listen.

It doesn’t sound remarkable, I know.  Lots of people think they know how to listen.  But what I’ve noticed is that people don’t as much know how to listen as how to wait.  They wait for whoever they are interacting with to stop talking, then they start talking themselves.  They might talk about something related, they might offer their opinion or advice, or they might share a similar story from their own experience.

There is nothing really wrong with that, either.  It’s how human interaction happens.  When we talk to our friends we want to have a conversation, we want to hear their opinions and their reactions.  We want feedback.

But who hasn’t had a conversation where you’ve tried to express how you feel about a difficult situation, looking for a sympathetic ear, and gotten frustrated when the other person either starts talking about their own life or tells you what to do to fix it.  I know I have and, going by the number of people who call Youthline, I don’t think I’m alone.

Counselling training first and foremost teaches you how to listen.  How to acknowledge, understand and reflect what someone is saying to you.  Without judgement, without giving advice, and without talking about yourself.

And somewhat surprisingly (at least it was to me), it can be hugely beneficial.  I think it makes people feel comforted when someone understands and sits alongside them during a difficult time in their life.  It validates how they feel.  It helps them to express themselves without fear of judgement.

So over this crazy holiday season, whatever you may be up to, I encourage you to try it out.  Sit back and really listen to what someone is telling you.  Think through all the things you would normally say, then maybe only say one of them, or none of them.  Just be there and acknowledge what you hear.

You might be surprised at the result.

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