When someone is in pain – whether it is caused by sickness, heartbreak, or failure – you cannot magically make it disappear, no matter how much you might want to. This can leave you feeling helpless – but you have more power than you realize.
You do not need to rescue someone from their situation in order to help – instead, you can offer to share their emotional burden. And you can do this by fully listening to them express their pain. When you truly listen and imagine what it must be like to be in their shoes – and when you make your empathy evident to them, you change their experience. They are no longer sitting alone. Instead, you are emotionally sitting beside them. Of course, no one can know exactly what it’s like for them, but you can still share their experience. And it’s in sensing that you are “with” them that they are helped.
There are two elements of good listening that are particularly important:
Validation and acceptance: Good listening involves more than just hearing someone’s words (or seeing their actions). You must also let them know that their pain makes sense and is “valid” – meaning that they have every right to feel as they do and that many, if not most, people in their circumstance would feel similarly. In validating their experience, you are also accepting them as they are – pain and all. This can help them accept themselves and their experiences, which is usually soothing. For those who tend to be highly self-critical, such validation can help them to stop aggravating their pain by beating themselves up.
New perspective: Because you can never fully relate to someone else’s experiences, you will always be seeing their situation at least somewhat from an outside perspective. As long as they sense that you basically “get” what they feel, this is a good thing. It enables you to offer a different perspective, new ideas, and possibly suggest some good that they cannot see. If they feel you understand and care, they might be more open to these new perspectives. For example, as a friend struggles with feeling like a reject after being dumped, they might be able to hear that you and others value them. Or, while a family member feels helpless as they battle a debilitating disease or injury, your willingness to sit with their pain and still love them can lighten their emotional burden.
Good and healing listening is a loving act that offers connection with the person’s deeply felt experience – and that is the most healing force in the world.
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