Compassionately Listening

Listening with compassion sounds pretty straightforward, but it is often more challenging than you think. I have had lots of practice, especially when I’m working with disaster survivors, and I still have plenty of room for improvement. I have often gone back to this Dalai Lama quote as I think it so well describes how to truly be compassionate:

“Usually, our concept of compassion or love refers to the feeling of closeness we have with our friends and loved ones. Sometimes compassion also carries a sense of pity. This is wrong. Any love or compassion which entails looking down on the other is not genuine compassion. To be genuine, compassion must be based on respect for the other, and on the realization that others have the right to be happy and overcome suffering, just as much as you. On this basis, since you can see that others are suffering, you develop a genuine sense of concern for them.”

~ The XIVth Dalai Lama

Heather responding to a disaster as part of the Red Cross Disaster Assistance Team.

I was struck by something one of our clients recently said to one of our caseworkers. It was so simple, yet very telling: “You are comforting to be around.” The client went on to explain that it was a struggle to talk to friends and family about the disaster as some asked too little and others asked too much. Indeed it’s a fine line when you are the listener and are not sure what to say. I know I have struggled to figure out the best thing to say when someone is dealing with a difficult situation, a loss, or a disaster. As an inherent problem solver, I always want to provide an answer and fix things for them. If there is no immediate solution, I struggle for the right words. It is only when I realize that it is not about me that I can be a compassionate listener. I have to leave all my assumptions and judgments behind and respect the person as a fellow human that is entitled to exactly the same things I am, which includes helping them to ease their pain and suffering. It is a difficult thing to do if you are not conscious of it, and I continuously have to work on being aware of how my ideologies and views affect my ability to be a compassionate listener.

Being compassionate is based on empathy, not sympathy or feeling sorry for someone. The best explanation I have seen that illustrates the distinction is Brene Brown’s short video. As Brene explains, “Empathy fuels connection and sympathy drives disconnection.” In our work, we believe connecting with community after a disaster is the key to recovery. Having that unbiased support fulfills that human desire to be heard, understood, and not judged. And during a time of crisis, that need is even more profound.

Next time someone you know is going through a tough time, think about how you can be a compassionate listener and I promise it will make all the difference in that person’s world.

~Heather Korth


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