Recently, my older son and I did an interview for Mental Illness Awareness Week. The interviewer directed most of the questions towards him and I found myself sitting quietly, simply listening to his responses. In those two hours, I discovered more about my son – his experiences, fears, failures and triumphs – than I ever knew before, despite our 22 years of life together. At one point, the interviewer asked if there was any advice I could give other parents of children living with mental illness. My answer: I wish I had talked less and listened more. While much of the time I was trying to help him by sharing my experiences and solutions, what took me a long time to realize was that they were my experiences, my solutions, not his. Often what he needed, and still needs, was someone to hear, really hear, what he was going through.
My Mom used to say we have two ears and one mouth for a reason: we are meant to listen at least twice as much as we talk. Have you ever had the experience of having a conversation with someone who really listened to what you were saying? Not just waiting for you to finish talking so they could take over. Not using the time while you talk to formulate their response. Not interrupting you mid-sentence to say they know “just how that feels” and then telling you about their experience or their solution that is nothing like what you were trying to convey. And not glancing down at their phone every few seconds, sending a text or answering a call with the explanation, “Sorry, this is important.” I have been on the receiving end of such “conversations” and, I confess, I have also had a starring role as ‘poor listener’ too.
In his Seven Habits of Highly Successful People1, Steven Covey’s suggests one of the keys to working together is to “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.” It is not such an easy habit to adopt, but it really is one of the keys to building authentic connections. Listening is a skill worth working hard to develop. Next time you are talking with someone, remind yourself how good it felt when someone really listened to you when you needed them. Put away your phone and other distractions. Set aside your judgments and your assumptions. Rather than jumping ahead to your response, stay in the moment. Just listen. Make eye contact, acknowledge the feelings behind the words, and paraphrase the message back to them so that the listener knows that you really get it, or has a chance to clarify if you don’t.
You don’t have to have experienced mental illness to genuinely understand and acknowledge someone’s pain. It can be as simple as saying something like, “This must be very hard to live with; I’m sorry you’re going through such a difficult time.” There is no better way of saying “I care” than being fully present for that short time together. And, as I discovered, you may just learn a thing or two.
The more you practice listening from the heart, the greater are the connections you build. And the wonderful thing about connection is as much as you give to others, it is returned to you. Remember, that person who may need an ear (or two) could one day be you.
When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen. – Ernest Hemingway
1 Covey, S. R. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people: Restoring the character ethic. Melbourne: Business Library.
About Susan Mifsud
Susan Mifsud is a 49 year old mother of two adult sons who has worked in university administration for the last 25 years. She is an active volunteer and advocate in support of the elimination of stigma and shame related to mental illness and addiction. Follow Susan’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds blog or additionally follow Susan on Twitter.