The listening ear

“People tell me things,” he said. He has a sympathetic manner, and simply by not interrupting or gentle prompting at the right moment might get me to tell all my woes, but I got the feeling telling him was not entirely safe. Might he use what you told him? Why would you tell people these things anyway? Because it is a relief. You get it off your chest. You feel better.

Samaritans can talk to a supervisor after a difficult call about what they have heard. While listening, I needed to empathise, to feel with the other. After hearing, I always found I needed to shed their pain. Sometimes I was like a dog shaking myself on coming out of water, and sometimes it took much longer. Once I needed to talk to a friend for two hours. And sometimes it was as if they had a bottomless pit of pain. I would listen, and it would be as difficult as the most painful story could be, and I gave no relief.

Why would you do that? I liked it. It made me feel useful. It was a thing I felt I did quite well. It made me feel good. I would always rather say I do a thing because of what I gained from it- it made me feel good- rather than claim a good quality. Perhaps I am a loving soul, perhaps it is a sign of lovingness to want to do this for people, but that seems to me a story I tell about myself rather than a perception. “I am a good listener” is an idea to alter my conduct, or make me feel guilty when I do not live up to it. There is no life in it. In a particular moment, I want to listen and earth distress. It seems to me to be good right at that time. There is the life.

It also seems possible to me that someone might want to listen, because that feeling of being useful might make them feel better. Three of us at the trans club- the Baptist minister, the trainee Unitarian minister, and me- heard a trans man begin to tell his difficulties, and we all leant forward in unison, with our concerned listening faces on.

People offer to listen. There’s a way of saying “How are you?” to which the only acceptable response is “Well, thank you” unless you are really distressed, in which case you still need their consent to be a shoulder to cry on. Lots of people use “How are you” as a conventional greeting and are not interested in any answer. And there’s a way of saying “How are you?”, dripping with sympathy, begging to hear your most intimate thoughts.

And it is good to phone a friend. I share what is on my mind at the moment. She listens, asks some questions, does not sort my problem out but may say something useful. It is reciprocal. I do that with H occasionally. She has just moved house and is settling in. The couple she is staying with are really nice, welcoming and friendly. I am glad to hear it.

If you offer to listen to me, you take the risk that my hurt is too much for you to bear. If you are in a fragile state, perhaps it is better not to search me out and offer to listen. It is not my fault if you are perturbed by what you hear. But remember that I do not need you to make me feel better. My response is my own.

I wanted to communicate the depth of my distress, and I did so by curling on the floor in a foetal position. That was where I was at the time. I am not feeling that bad all the time. So it was a clusterfuck, two fragile people colliding, and if either had been less fragile at the time there would have been no problem. Not my fault, though, and unfair to blame me.

Do you like to listen, or find unburdening to someone does you good?

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