It was a question I hadn’t expected. I fumbled for an answer while another person at the table provided a more focused response. Now several days since this dinner conversation occurred, our discussion has stayed with me because of the importance of the insight contained in the brief exchange.
Four of us were having a friendly dinner and chatting about many topics in a somewhat random way. In the mix of topics, one of the people at the table – a high school football coach – asked a significant question. He began: “Sometimes, the kids talk to me about things I’m not sure how to handle. I’m not sure what advice to give them. I don’t want them to think I don’t take them seriously, but I just don’t know what to say. What should I do?”
It was clear that he was bothered by his inability to respond to the youth with whom he works. I suspect he and I are like many adults: we just don’t quite understand some of the pressures that impact youth and aren’t sure how to respond to problems that were simpler in a different era. We just don’t fully understand the complexities of their lives. After all, so many things are different than when we were in high school. At that moment, I reflected on how different life is for youth today than it was for me.
Another person at the table was able to add to the conversation in a more helpful way. “Don’t be concerned about what you’re going to say. Just listen and take it all in.” He went on to explain that often times the first thing that someone shares isn’t the real issue the person wants to share. The person may want to talk about something more significant but is testing to see if the listener is open and receptive of what may be shared. Having an answer or advice generally ends the conversation. That’s not helpful to the person with something deeper to share. Instead, simply try not to rush the conversation or add any opinion. By way of silence, a nod of the head, or brief encouraging comments, allow the other to know that you are listening and not judging what’s being said.
This approach is essentially used by counselors. A therapist knows that the when a client first begins to share, the first things said (often called “the presenting problem”) are not actually the heart of the matter. What’s said first is really just a starting place. It takes a while for most people to talk about what’s going on inside.
While this was a good perspective for my friend, the high school football coach, it’s an important perspective to have when supporting another person’s growth along a spiritual path. Having someone with whom to share thoughts, insights, and concerns is essential for spiritual growth and development. Through spiritual practice, meditation, and reading, we gain new insights and encounter richer dimensions of our lives. Sometimes these things are confusing, or isolating, or enriching. Talking about these experiences is an important aspect for growth and maturity. Yet, it can be difficult to find someone who will listen and accept our experience and insight for what it is.
Many times, people aren’t looking for advice or an answer. Instead, they want to be heard. It’s often helpful to simply be a witness to what is being said, to hold a safe and accepting space in which to receive what’s being shared. By creating and holding that space, by not responding with quick advice or an off-the-cuff resolution, we become witnesses to the other person’s journey toward wholeness and integration. That is a precious gift to give others.
As we continued to talk, my friend the football coach admitted that as a coach, he’s used to having answers that provide a clear direction. “When you throw the ball, do this; when you’re running a play, do that.” That’s the right thing to do as a coach. But there are other times when the best thing we can do for others is to listen and remain quiet. In doing so, the other comes to find the experience and thoughts shared are respected. In that process, growth can occur.
© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.