I was sharing a story over coffee with a friend a few weeks ago when his phone made a dinging noise in his pocket. I paused as he began typing out a text message and my silence made him look up from his phone. "It's OK, keep going," he said. "I'm still listening."
At a time when we've come to expect near-instant communication, the act of listening, especially non-distracted listening, is a rarity. Ringing phones, email alerts, and text messages demand our attention, but they are only a small part of the problem. We are often our own biggest distraction, letting our minds wander away from conversations to our personal stressors, feelings and ideas. Even the conversation itself can become a distraction; how often have you found yourself formulating your response while the other person is still speaking?
We request that children give their "undivided attention," but in a world constantly asking for our comments, updates and opinions, it's sometimes still difficult to put into practice, even as an adult. We know that "active listening" is a tenet of good communication, but we seem to have forgotten that even when taking an active role, listening should still primarily be a spectator sport.
This should concern us, as listening is as powerful as it is scarce. Listening is not just a common courtesy, but can be a transformational act that builds community and reshapes lives.
In 2008, Seattle Police Department's Detective Kim Bogucki stumbled upon the power of listening when she asked a group of incarcerated women an important question: "If there was something someone could have said or done that would have changed the path that led you here, what would it have been?"
In their answers, a common thread is found: someone to listen.
Bogucki soon began the If Project, through which she has kept asking women "what if," in hopes of reducing recidivism and encouraging youth and adults to make healthier choices. The response essays demonstrate just how difficult it can be to find someone to listen. One of the women believes that she would have had a better life as a child if she "... had more of friend, someone I could confide in and trust...". Some of the women didn't realize how much they craved the opportunity to talk until they had already found other, more harmful ways of dealing with difficult feelings.
When someone affected by domestic violence and sexual assault comes to Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County, which is known as DVSAS, we offer a plethora of programs, from legal assistance to support groups. But perhaps our most valuable service is the most simple: listening. Twenty-four hours a day people can call our helpline and find a compassionate, non-judgmental advocacy counselor on the other end. In fact, a recent survey showed clients sought emotional support from DVSAS over any other service.
When's the last time you really listened? Not while you were driving, or sending a text message, or cooking dinner. When is the last time you sat down, face-to-face or over-the-phone, and just listened?
If it's been a while, give it a try. Although our advocacy counselors receive special training to provide support, it's possible for anyone to provide this cathartic outlet. Stop talking, silence your phone, and focus on the speaker. Let silence happen and try to see life through the speaker's lens.
In the end, you might find that what you receive is just as valuable as what you give.
And that dinging text message in your pocket? It can probably wait.
EVENT APRIL 18
Kim Bogucki of the If Project will be the keynote speaker at the Victory Over Violence luncheon benefiting Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County. The event will be held on from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday, April 18, at Northwood Hall, 3240 Northwest Ave. The event is free to attend. Reserve a seat at dvsas.org.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jenn Mason is development and education director for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County. For more information online, go to dvsas.org.