When Santa Claus Isn’t Coming to Town: Give the Gift of Active Listening
Contributing Author: Mary Ashley, NDAA Well-being Task Force Vice Chair
You better watch out, you may want to cry, you might even pout ’cause I’m telling you why — COVID 19 came to town. And since then, our lives have never been the same. But we are looking at how to do things much differently these days, and that includes the holidays. While some are worried about Amazon Prime Days and Virtual Black Fridays, let’s talk about the real gifts we can give to one another this season. The ones that cost nothing and do us all some good.
Years ago, while going through my own fleeting “crisis,” my best friend would be sure to call and check in with me, while I would babble along about, likely, that same old thing, completely one-sided. One time in particular, it was late at night. I knew she was traveling for work, in a different time zone and likely exhausted. But there she was, on the line with me so I could chime away about whatever seemed so important at the time. As I write this now, I can’t truly remember anything I said. What I do remember was that she fell asleep while still on the phone with me. I smile while I write this now because I loved the fact that she made such an effort to be there for me despite being wiped-out and likely highly fatigued about hearing the same old complaints about the same guy. I realized I was being a one-sided talker. This heartfelt example of her generosity is a good example of why we need to set some guidelines and plan our conversations so they can be meaningful to both people on the line.
We’ve all received the call from a friend in crisis — whether it be something major or just something really major to them in particular. How we “react” as opposed to how we “respond” to someone can be vitally important, for both the listener and the talker. And, how we listen can be as well. Building one’s own resiliency can be done by finding a purpose and feeling you have contributed to helping someone. That is exactly what an active listening session can be for someone offering a friendly ear. In some ways, it follows the old adage, you have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Not to imply that you remain silent during the conversation, but often you should say less for a reason. And when you do speak, it’s with purpose. A passive listener mostly does that — the other person talks but isn’t fully present. The conversation is solely a one-way communication, maybe with a couple “uh-huhs” thrown in but without substance, engagement or perhaps even comprehension. How many of us are “listening” while scrolling on our phones, reading emails or doing something else? Guilty as charged.
Active listening is a skill that can be learned, practiced and refined. Right now, you’re thinking “it’s easy just to listen to someone talk,” right? Try it — without interrupting, without talking over them, without telling them what to do, without passing judgement, without doing something else on your phone or computer, without watching TV, without telling them all about your own experience with the same issue in great detail or, finally, without saying, “Have to go now, call you later.” and never do.
The first step can simply be to set a time aside to have the conversation. Nothing can be more frustrating than reaching out to share your emotions with someone only to hear five minutes in “hey, gotta jump on a zoom meeting right now, but we’ll talk soon. Take care.” Unless someone is having an immediate emergency, scheduling time is the best way to ensure both people have the time for a meaningful conversation. Be honest when someone calls asking, “Do you have a minute?” if you, in fact, do not have the time the conversation will require at that moment. Of course, if it is urgent (person is crying, injured, etc.) that is a different story and will require you to reprioritize so you can be there for support.
Through extensive peer support training, I have been fortunate to become far more aware of some easy ways to become a better listener. In a series of active listening skills, there are several ways you can let a person know you are, in fact, listening and understanding what they mean. For example, you can paraphrase what someone has told you with, “It sounds like…” and they can let you know if that is correct. Or, you can clarify with a question such as, “Are you saying that . . .” and allow the person to respond. Sometimes, you can mirror what has been spoken by repeating a word or two from their statement to encourage the conversation further. If someone is telling you how they feel about something, you can reflect that back such as, “So what you are feeling right now is . . .” or you can emotionally label a comment with, “You sound . . .”. Open ended questions are also a good way to encourage and support a conversation, such as, “Tell me more about that.” At times, when appropriate, even such self-disclosure on the topic can be helpful, as long as it is not overly personal or attention seeking. Finally, just asking questions to find out what steps they’ve taken, what their fears are, or how you can come up with a plan together can be very helpful.
Something we all tend to do is respond to someone by saying, “I know how you feel.” Seems like a natural thing to say if you’ve been through what you believe to be the same thing. However, what we really should be saying is that we are sorry to hear what has happened and then listen to how they feel. Sharing similar experiences and feelings can be helpful but be mindful that no two situations are exactly the same for every person.
So, now that the holidays are here, when making your “lists,” be sure to include active listening as a valuable gift you can give someone in need. It may be one of the most meaningful things you do this holiday season.
Well-being Task Force Vice Chair, Mary Ashley, is a Deputy District Attorney with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office. Along with being a Board member of NDAA, Mary is also a member of the California District Attorneys Association and NDAA’s Vice Chair Women Prosecutors Section.