When you can’t share experience: The power of listening

I just recently attended a meeting where there was a panel discussion on caring for Holocaust survivors. The person who opened the meeting spoke about how she felt inadequate when dealing with this population because she had no personal place of reference — she had no family members who died during the Holocaust, and so she couldn’t truly understand what the survivors went through.

I have a different thought.

Although every experience each of us has helps us to put ourselves in the shoes of others, helps us to empathize, helps us to imagine what others may be going through, each shared experience also puts a potential block between us and the person we are trying to understand.

There’s an old joke: “When two people are having a conversation, one person is talking and the other person is waiting.” We know what we want to say. We are ready with our next speech. We listen to enough of what the other person is saying to tie it in and segue nicely into our “response” to what the other has said. Frequently it’s not truly a response to what the other has said — it’s our response and reaction to the thought as it was first introduced.

If we think we understand someone else, we may fail to listen enough. If we think we don’t understand them, we may listen more carefully. If we think that we cannot understand someone, then we may stop listening altogether. It’s a balance.

I am frequently struck by how differently two people can experience the same event. And I am frequently struck by how similarly two people can respond to disparate events. So alignment of thought, emotion, reaction, and experience is not completely predictable. We need not to presume that we understand someone else. We need to listen and remain open to the possibility that we might not “get” someone that we think we do, or that we might completely “get” someone to whom we had thought we couldn’t relate.

While in many cases having a fundamental experience in common can strongly connect people, the durability of that connection ultimately depends on factors other than that common experience. A genuine caring for the other person, a willingness to hear what that other person has to say (rather than just assuming knowledge of the other person’s story), and the ability to accept differences in the other person enables the relationship to grow and strengthen. When those other factors are present, that shared experience is not necessarily crucial to the interpersonal bond.

Support groups can be very helpful for many people. They pull together individuals who are sharing a specific struggle. The people in these groups can learn from one another, sympathize with one another, gain insights from one another, and support one another. But generally the people who participate in support groups are people who want the support, want to support others, want to connect. There are guidelines in place to protect members’ anonymity (if so desired), and to allow each member the opportunity to tell his or her own story, thus encouraging other members to listen. It’s not simply the shared experience that makes the groups work — it goes far beyond that.

Because I must work very hard to maintain a healthy weight, I can sympathize and empathize with people who struggle with their weight. But if I assume that their experiences and reactions are the same as mine, the counseling and advice I give could very easily not work for them. When I listen, when I get people to tell me their stories, I can combine their situation with what I know from the medical literature, what I know from my own experiences, and what I know from having listened to others’ narratives, to synthesize and formulate a plan with them.

I am not a smoker. I have never felt an overpowering urge for a cigarette. Yet I have been able to help many people quit tobacco use. My lack of sharing in the experience forced me early on in my medical career to take the time to really listen to what my patients had to say about why they smoked, why they wanted or didn’t want to quit, what made it difficult for them to quit, and what seemed to help them and what didn’t. I didn’t come at it with a preconceived notion, with an “oh, I’ve been there, I know what to do” approach — I let my patients teach me.

So while a shared experience certainly can help people understand one another, it is not necessarily so, and a lack of experience-sharing can in some instances lead to better understanding through true listening unhindered by expectations and preconceptions. The key is the willingness to listen. To stop waiting for our turn to talk, and to really listen.  Of course this means that the conversation will take longer, since we need to take the time to formulate a response after fully listening to and hearing what the other person has to say, but the communication that actually takes place during that interaction will be far more fruitful.

The person at the meeting who felt inadequate in counselling a certain population because she hadn’t experienced their trauma still has plenty to offer. If she says “I will never know what you went through, but I care about you and want to understand you. If you will teach me, if you will tell me your story, I will do my best to listen and to learn,” then she will have potentially opened a door to a connection, to trust, to a potentially therapeutic relationship, and ultimately to an understanding that can possibly help her to help the next person whose story she listens to and hears.

Abigail Schildcrout is founder, Practical Medical Insights, and blogs at DocThoughts.

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