I learned that one in the church.

(This is part I of a few posts on listening.  I have no clue when it will end because I don't know when I'll run out of things to talk about.  Also, I might get bored.  Could go either way ....)

I have a therapist friend I love wholly and dearly.  She is the type of girl to have a glass of wine with, to get ridiculous with and to laugh naughtily with.  Lately, I've had some personal stuff going on and I mentioned something briefly to Friend about it.   Just to put my busy-ness in context.  I wasn't being coy on purpose.

She asked, "Do you want to talk about it?"

I said, "Nope."

She asked, "Because it makes it bigger, huh?"

I said, "Yep."

But that wasn't really the truth.  The truth is that I'm extraordinarily picky about with whom I share my stress.  And I am extraordinarily picky  because when I've got Big Stuff, I really need people to listen, really listen, to not try to relate what I'm saying to themselves, and to be empathetic.

Easy right?


(Friend, by the way, is a successful therapist who builds incredible rapport with her clients.  I'm sure she listens well to them.  Maybe it's because we're friends, but I do not like trying to have serious talks with her.  I have just a few people I'm able to voluntarily go to when I have problems.  And this past year?  Ohhhhh, man.  Those poor handful of people!)

Listening is super hard, guys.  It can be incredibly difficult and exhausting to be fully present with someone, especially when you feel like you can relate and want to tell your story, and perhaps even more so when you don't agree with what the person is saying.  In my new job, I have 28 days to work with clients -- Approximately 40 hours of therapy.  That's an incredibly short amount of time, and you know what it's recommended we spend the first 6-10 hours doing?  Active listening.  (Oh my word.  I just asked Shoes what the hardest part of listening for him personally was, and he said, "Not injecting my own narrative into the person's story before they finish."  Somebody's been listening to the therapist in the house!)

It should be easy, right?  I mean, you just use your ears and listen, right?  Maybe it should be ... but it just isn't.  We spent the first several hours of core counseling class in graduate school learning how to listen actively, reframe, ask clarifying questions, etc.    Why?  Because you have to listen intently to start to understand the other person.

Let me tell you what.
That RUINED me.
Once I had a few experiences of genuinely being listened to, I started to get super frustrated when I felt like people weren't listening to me.

And let me tell you what.
That was incredibly VALIDATING for me.
Once I had a few experiences of genuinely being listened to, I realized the sheer power of knowing that I was being held and valued in another person's eyes.  It was deeply humbling and I felt deeply, deeply loved.

So, in this first part of this series on listening, I'm going to tell you two stories of what it feels like to be deeply listened to.  One is my own.  The other is from a past client.  (All identifying information has been changed about this client and the dialogue is re-created - no direct quotes).

My story:

2012.  Second year of graduate school.  I was interning at an inner city community outpatient mental health clinic in Southeast Portland, and I had just started to receive, as clients, families who scored higher on service intensity instruments. One of the families I was assigned was a father and step-mother who had recently regained custody of the father's 15 year old teen.  While in another person's care, the teen had suffered intense trauma, and, when referred for therapy, was engaging in behaviors one might expect from a 15 year old who had suffered intense trauma.  Father and step-mom were at a loss, and their way of dealing with the behavior, before therapy, was to blame and punish.

This hit a nerve with me.

While I understood, fully, that they were doing the best that they could, my heart went out to this teen, who was so thoroughly and utterly lost, lonely and hurting.  I was describing my own counter-transference in group supervision one day, and my group supervisor, who had been listening intently, said, "I think maybe you have a personal experience that is helping you to really understand this teen."

And I did.  In a long, rambling verbal vomit of monologue (ugh - sorry group!), I went on and on about my time working in juvenile detention and the things I had seen:  foster kids who misbehaved so they could get out of foster homes and come to juvie, where they knew the routine, knew they would be fed and warm, and knew we loved them; kids who came from abusive homes and asked us to please not return them back to the same environment; kids who were heavily gang involved on the "outside" who turned into loveable balls of bad body odor (well, they were teens after all) on the "inside".  As I talked, and as the group listened, I was able to tap into this strength I had in me - this experience of working with kids people didn't want anymore - and I was able to gain clarity into what I had to do therapeutically.

I walked away from that group supervision with more confidence and more resolve.
I felt a little more complete.
It was wholly and completely validating.

A client story:

The middle aged man came into the mental health clinic asking to speak with a crisis counselor.  "I need help," the man said, "finding housing."  Finding housing was not considered, by agency standards, a mental health crisis.  And to meet with this person, I had to cancel scheduled ongoing clients.  I could have referred the him to community resources and declined to meet.  He was also, honestly, menacing and rough looking - heavily tattooed and burly.   (That wasn't prejudicial thinking.  That was me thinking about safety.)


But, the person was looking at me like he knew I was going to say no.  And that appeared exhausting.  I will never forget the look in his eyes.  There was no hope.

What if?

I met with the person.  And I heard a long story of medical health issues - bills that couldn't be paid - assets that had to be sold off.  Relationships that were lost.  Complicating effects of the poverty that followed.

It wasn't a crisis by agency standards.
My other clients, who were cancelled, were frustrated the next day.

But here's how this ended.

At the end of 90 minutes, after listening, reaching for emotion, leaning forward and making eye contact, I gave the client a couple of resources that hadn't been tried yet.

And as he staggered painfully to his feet, looked at me and said, "I knew you weren't going to be able to help me."

I nodded.
After all, that sounded true.
And truthfully, I heard that a lot in crisis mental health.

But then he said, "And I will never forget that you chose to listen to me.  And it has been a long ass time [editor's note:  he said something a little more dirty than that] since anybody has done that."  And then tattooed man cried a little and shook my hand.

That was a good decision to make that day.


And you, reader?
Was there a time you were so genuinely listened to that you felt loved in every fiber of your being?


  1. Unknown on June 15, 2013 at 1:31 AM

    Oh my dear friend. I am so very bad at actively listening. I need to learn how to do this and not insert my own feelings into everything!! And no, I don't remember the last time someone just genuinely listened to my story and let me talk it out. I need that. (Are you for rent?)

    I miss you.

  2. Unknown on June 15, 2013 at 1:32 AM

    PS it's Ronna. I don't know why it published me as unknown. *sigh* lol It's appropriate to the subject matter though!

  3. Lisa on June 15, 2013 at 7:33 AM

    Ronna, no charge for you!! I find it entirely ironic that as I train for this new job, I'm in your old city every stinking day. Oh, the timing. I wish that timing could have been (for selfish reasons!) just a tad different so that I could have some one on one time with you! Active listening is tiring. I think so many of us feel like we're not being really heard that it becomes really difficult to squelch that very real need we have in ourselves to give it to another person. (PS - I bet, *especially* considering your own professional role, you are way better at it than you think. Give yourself some credit! :))

  4. Anonymous on June 15, 2013 at 3:37 PM

    I love you. Love your writing. Love your heart. Love your ability to express what you need and what you hope and want to be.

    Thank you for the reminder of the gift of listening. I suck at it like nobody's business....suckety-suck. I can always strive to do better.



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