With 2018 in full swing, we are wise to ask and reflect upon how well we listen to one another. As an addiction, behavioral health care expert, clinician and thought leader, I believe it is imperative that we take time to listen to our colleagues, family, friends and above all our clients. Karl A. Menninger wrote, “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.”

A few years ago I had the opportunity to reflect on how we engage in conversations with one another. I thought about the art of listening and wondered: do we really care about one another? This brought me to two iconoclastic sources on the topic. The first is the 1969 Jewish novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth. At one point in the novel, Portnoy reflects on the meaning of “How are you?” He poses the question, when you ask someone “How are you,” do you REALLY care how they are doing? What if they respond with something more than, “I am fine or I am so busy?” Roth asks us to consider: do we even care how the other person is? What if they truly shared their thoughts? What would we do?

Secondly, I stumbled across Omi Safi’s op-ed piece on The Disease of Being Busy. Safi is the director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center and a guest columnist for On Being. In his piece, he eloquently cautions us that our dis-ease of being busy is killing our spiritual soul. We don’t take time to be present in each others’ lives. He shares, “In many Muslim cultures, when you want to ask them how they’re doing, you ask: in Arabic, Kayf haal-ik? or, in Persian, Haal-e shomaa chetoreh? How is your haal? What is this haal that you inquire about? It is the transient state of one’s heart. In reality, we ask, ‘How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?’ When I ask, ‘How are you?’ that is really what I want to know.”

Safi reminds us that like Philip Roth, he truly wants to know how you are. Like both Roth and Safi, I want to know how your heart is doing today.  I want to truly listen to my clients who call asking for help. I am not asking how many items are on your to-do list, or how many items are in your inbox. I want to know how your heart is doing, at this very moment. Tell me. Tell me your heart is joyous, tell me your heart is aching, tell me your heart is sad, tell me your heart craves a human touch. Examine your own heart, explore your soul, and then tell me something about your heart and your soul.

I hope you will tell me that you remember you are still a human being, not just a human doing. That you are more than just a machine, checking off items from your to-do list. Have that conversation, that glance, that touch. Be a healing conversation, one filled with grace and presence. Put your hand on my arm, look me in the eye, and connect with me for one second. Tell me something about your heart, and awaken my heart. Help me remember that I too am a full and complete human being, a human being who also craves a human touch.

And so it is with this in mind that I approach the conversations I have when my phone rings and a worried, sleepless, scared family member is on the other phone looking to help their addicted son or daughter, husband or wife, that I hit pause and listen with all my heart. As Stephen Covey cautions, “I must be mindful and listen to understand what the caller is saying, rather than listening with the intent to reply. “

What type of Listening skills do you have? What type of listening skills do your clients come with? Here are some ideas related to listening to ponder:

  • Do you listen with your hands?
  • Do you use your mouth, ears and are your feet firmly planted on the group?
  • If you are present is your body turned towards your client?
  • If you are on the phone are all distractions out of sight?
  • Do you listen with your brain and think about what someone is saying?
  • Do you listen with your heart and hear the affect, the pain, joy and courage in the caller?
  • Do you listen with your eyes?

All of us are guilty of not listening. Families who have been ravaged by addiction or mental health and have not been able to help their loved one usually have relied on conversational roadblocks as their way of listening. Here’s a look at those conversational roadblocks:

  • Ordering
  • Directing
  • Commanding, Warning, Disagreeing
  • Arguing
  • Giving advice
  • Nagging, giving suggestions/solutions
  • Moralizing or preaching
  • Criticizing , judging, blaming and shaming

As Addiction professionals, our job is to engage in crucial conversations which demand that we are experts in listening. That we become still and quiet and actively listen, that we respond and do not react and that we respond with statements that accurately reflect what we have heard. We repeat and ask if I have heard you correctly. We may rephrase, paraphrase or reflect a feeling. “It sounds like you are struggling… I understand this is difficult for you,” are the ways to reflect a listening spirit.

Other ways we may engage in meaningful conversations with individuals or families include:

  • Exaggeration so as to bring home what the person is saying—“ So if I hear you correctly, you want to…”
  • We will ask about what is good or not so good about changing a behavior and explore ambivalence with our clients
  • Other times we might ask evocative questions such as how might you go about changing? What do you want to change?
  • Or ask questions for clarity and understanding. Was there ever a time when things were good? What was that like for you?
  • Discover goals and intentions and along the way you may be met with resistance. Rephrasing and trying again may help.

Is there something heavy on your heart? Is a loved one – be it a brother, friend, aunt, grandparent, or spouse – struggling with substance abuse, mental health, chronic pain or any other form of addiction? Have you tried talking with them and they won’t listen? I am here to help. I will pause, listen with my whole heart and body. And when that doesn’t work, I’ll try again and ask, reframe, rephrase softly, “How is your heart today? I am here to listen and help you become the person you want to be.”

This originally appeared as an article for Huffington Post. To view original, click here.

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