I had a dear 82-year old lady come see me today – I had seen her last year when her husband passed away and she was grieving, but now she was depressed.
Different to last year. Not surprising you might flippantly think, and also pass this blog by and say yup, Covid, isolation and so on. And you would be correct, because initially that is what I thought too. But the reason I am using this as an example is to highlight to you that sometimes we need to take a moment and listen deeper, really listen and hear what is being said. You see, on deeper conversation, let’s call this lady Mary, had been recently diagnosed with Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and her well-meaning relative had said to her it is all in her head. Believing this to be true, Mary went to her GP, related her symptoms which had been ongoing for probably 20 years (with periods of variable severity), and the GP too, had said yes, definitely IBS (without any substantiating investigation), prescribed mediation and gave a referral with the words it’s probably “more in your head” – similar to the words of the well-meaning relative.
Now I am not a medically trained doctor, and neither do I have any medical knowledge either, but I do believe that IBS is not all in your head. And certainly, in this case, the symptoms were not in Mary’s head. But I use this as an example as I feel it points to how we all have a narrative, a story, a perspective on a situation and we bring that to a conversation, and we stick with it.
When we engage in a conversation, stuck in our narrative, we are unable to hear, to listen and to walk in another’s shoes. In this way, we cannot see, feel or even begin to understand someone else’s words. Not listening makes the other person feel ignored, disrespected and undervalued. This leads to disconnection and can ultimately cause a rift in a relationship. When you listen, you voluntarily choose to listen, it is a conscious action and effort. Listening implies that you are attending, making sense of what is being said and remembering the content. It’s an active state. This is different to hearing, which is more about noise, sound, vibrations.
I listened to Mary, I understood what she was saying and realised that whilst yes, she may have IB, sadly neither her GP nor her relative had taken the time to suggest any dietary changes nor had they looked at times when the symptoms decreased or increased. It was easier to pass an elderly lady off with a prescription, and a flippant comment of “it’s in your head”. Now, 4 weeks after our initial conversation she is symptom free, feeling less anxious and happier.
Especially in these times of disconnection, isolation and seclusion when the need for greater unity and community is of essence, it is time for all of us to listen to one another. To actively pay attention, to tune in and notice what is being said. Empathic listening boosts social connectedness and fosters helping behaviours. It has been proven that empathy is a great way to help you regulate your own emotions in periods of stress and overwhelm and manage your anxiety. So, in each interaction, clean your glasses and come with fresh eyes. Let go of your narratives and your old story, wipe the slate clean. Listen and see what you can learn from that interaction rather than what you can do to influence the interaction.