Over the years, I have had the privilege of working with thousands of young adults and teens, serving in the capacity of an advisor, a counselor, and a mentor. One of the skills I learned very early on was to listen with more than just my ears. You may be thinking, “Um, aren’t ears necessary for listening to a person?” True as that may be, there is something more that we as human beings are blessed to be able to hear and listen with: our hearts.
As a counselor and advisor, I was trained to look for body language as it coincided with a person’s words. Growing that skill served me well as I counseled teens or college-aged young adults who were dealing with feelings of low self-worth, or identity crisis. As a mentor, that skill translated into even better understanding of those I trained in the field of advocacy and showing them how to look for actions that matched words. However, as a friend, family member, and parent, I learned from those I helped in my personal life how to listen with my heart.
The other day, I had a conversation with a young woman whom I had befriended three years ago. She is a young woman with a physical disability who has overcome a tremendous amount of obstacles in her brief 30 years of life. She is someone I admire for her resilience, perseverance, and strength. She truly is someone with the will and determination to survive and to thrive. Currently, she is a college student who is completing her last two classes in Human Development and Education, and I know her personal experiences and education will serve her well.
She and I were having what I considered a relatively light conversation when the topic of the relationships and the future of her family (i.e., her parents, siblings, and niece). My friend, Leanne*, has learned how to be mostly independent and function without little or no assistance from anyone. The rare occasion when she does need assistance she has become comfortable with explaining her condition and what she needs help in doing at that moment and time.
In our conversation, she mentioned an annual event that she would be attending with her family in Las Vegas, Nevada. Leanne mentioned that the last time she went to this annual music event with her brothers, she needed some assistance with getting ready for a night out. My friend had asked a relative who had come with them last year if she could help her get ready. Her brothers, although older than her, have never had to care for their sister physically and found it difficult to understand why Leanne needed to ask for help. They were embarrassed, but later felt remorseful for their reaction when they saw the level of and type of assistance Leanne was asking for from their relative.
In our conversation about this memory, Leanne explained that she worried that her siblings would never understand what it meant to have to take care of a child with disabilities. I tried to make sense of the comment and it didn’t hit me until the subject of her niece came up. Leanne’s niece is 2 years old, going on 3 years old very soon. Zaira*, Leanne’s niece, is non-verbal in communication, but has learned to communicate with her mother and all other adults through sign language. Leanne’s sister is a young single mom who is working hard to support her daughter. Other than Leanne, there has never been another relative or sibling with a disability. While Leanne did not mention her concerns over her niece’s inability to speak and her sister’s lack of experience in caring for a disabled child, Leanne’s heart was asking for advice, and possibly intervention.
Our conversation ended with me giving her several pieces of advice on how to begin working with Zaira, as well as an offer to mediate between Leanne, her parents, and her family. While I may not be an expert on disabilities, I am an experienced mediator and counselor when it comes to families in crisis. If I had not learned how to listen with my heart, I would have missed the things Leanne was not saying with her mouth. My friend had allowed me to see a piece of her heart and let me in to a private place so that I could help her somehow.
How does one learn to listen with their heart and not just their ears? Several website articles will most likely say it’s simply a matter of listening to your gut-feeling, or not to neglect your intuition. While that is good advice, complete with step-by-step instructions on how to meditate and hone in on your heart’s voice, it shouldn’t be so complicated. This is especially true when the heart you wish to listen to belongs to someone you care about. The best piece of advice I had seen came from Karen Ehman in her devotional on March 13, 2017 (see full article at http://proverbs31.org/devotions/devo/how-to-hear-a-heart-drop). In Ehman’s article she proposes a few simple and easy ways to learn to listen to another’s heart speaking. More than just listening, but also learning to respond.
- Learn to pay attention and live alert to others. This means you have to put yourself in a state of mind and body that is fully present to the person you are listening to in front of you.
- Responding to the other person with a thoughtful gesture that reassures your sincerity. You can do this by a reassuring word, a gentle hand on the shoulder, or by sending a handwritten note if the environment does not lend itself to speaking or physical closeness.
- Notice, respond, and echo your heart’s response to the person. This final step takes the first two, and completes it with a course of action you will take to show the other person that they are not alone.
In my book series, The Last Prophet, our main character, a therapist, has learned this skill of listening to hearts speaking. Dr. Sophia Randall developed this skill not just from her training, but because she herself has learned the importance of being fully present to a person. When our attention and focus is not torn away by technology or worries (e.g., cell phone, things we left behind unfinished at home or at work, etc.), then we are able to give our whole self to hearing with our ears and listening with our heart. This holds true for anyone, not just those of us who counsel.
After my conversation with Leanne several weeks ago, I continued to listen to her heart speak to me. Now, she feels more comfortable with me and just tells me directly what her concern is. In those instances, when she lets her heart speak instead of her words, my heart is also all ears.
Whose heart is speaking to you today? How will you respond? Comment in the space provided.
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*Names have been changed to protect identity.