The Power of Listening

by Geoff Merz, Centre Helps Hotline Volunteer

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The skills that I have learned working at the Centre Helps crisis hotline have been priceless. I have grown in empathy, respect, and commitment. Perhaps most importantly of all, I have learned how to listen; how to truly hear what someone is saying by extending past the words and feeling the deeper emotions in their voice.

I have come to see that listening is not just a spectator sport. It is not being quiet and letting the other person talk. Listening is an active process that involves giving your full attention and focus to another human being. Listening may be one of the most dignifying things that we can do as it demonstrates to the other person that they are worthy of respect. While one can argue that we should not gain our sense of worth from others, that does not mean that we should stop giving others the time of day to truly listen.

Listening is a skill. With the right practice, you become better and better. However, practice does not make perfect. Instead, and remember this, perfect practice makes perfect. By honing in on our technique, we can tremendously grow in our ability to listen. Making eye contact, having a similar body language, minimizing distractions, and not thinking about how to respond are all useful tools to add to your listening repertoire.

By learning how to listen, I have witnessed, on the hotline, the fragility and ugliness of humanity through systemic homelessness and utter loneliness, while at the same time gaining a look into the courage, strength, and beauty of our species, through the resilience people have to fight suicidal ideation and altruism from friends and family to care so deeply about those who are struggling.

People often ask how I deal with such intense calls. What do you do when someone is ready to end his life? What do you say that convinces him to stop? The answer to this question is simple. I listen. I give the person the space to express his feelings without judgment or condescension. By listening, I show to the other person that they are not crazy and that another human being understands them. The magic in these moments is immeasurable. 

So, next time you are having a conversation, think about if you are truly listening or just going through the motions. Think about the last time someone gave you their full attention. Really, revisit that moment. Now, think about how in every conversation you have the opportunity to make the other person feel the way you felt. Ok, now get out there and listen.

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