Life is difficult. Now, most people know that, at least those who have managed to grow up and turn into responsible adults. But on the other hand there seem to be a lot of tools and techniques for those who, in spite of that fundamental truth, have not given up to try and ease the burden on themselves and on others.
There is a lot of suffering around us. And it doesn´t seem to depend on
the country which I happen to visit, or the type of people I meet. It
doesn´t seem to depend on the affluence or the poverty which prevails
in this or that society. It doesn´t depend on the time of day, nor on
the weather. It just seems to be there.
We can see it on the faces of people in a crowd. I’m not referring to
people who have come together for a common purpose, like celebrating a
saints day or demonstrating against the government. Those people wear
almost identical expressions, because they are sharing identical
thoughts and objectives.
I mean people on the street, at the bus stop, waiting in line in the
supermarket. People walking or traveling home from work, waiting for the
traffic light to turn green.
There is no common cause that connects them, makes them really feel
‘part of the crowd’. They are essentially alone, sharing time and space
with other humans that happen to be in the same place. And there is
very little social interaction.
Talking to someone almost always means that you have an agenda, that you
want something . You might want to know of that person where the next
public telephone booth is because you forgot to recharge your
cellphone. You might want to convince your spouse that tonight it would
be so much better to stay home instead of going to the movies. That
telephone call to your brother, where you say virtually nothing but
show him by placing that call that you are sorry for what happened last
And, having an agenda, we control our body language, which includes our
facial expression, tone of voice, the way we gesture, etc. We are, in a
very real sense, acting, wanting to make the right impression.
People in an anonymous crowd don´t do that. They don´t wear a mask, here
‘what you see is what you get’. They don´t feel observed, therefore
there seems to be no need to control the facial expression. And it can
be a little bit frightening when you look long and close enough, can´t
We all carry our burden, some with more, some with less grace. We all,
without exception, have our problems. I might be suffering from my
overweight, my apparent inability to control my food intake. Now, even
though that’s a condition shared by millions around the globe, it still
is my own, personal problem, and I feel alone with it. Nobody really
The same is true for the mother whose 16-year-old son has taken up
smoking. That happens to a lot of mothers, true, but she still feels
alone with that situation because nobody really understands her.
That’s because nobody really listens to her.
There is a lot of material available today on how to develop and improve
our communication skills. They are mostly written for business people
who want to get on with their clients, corporate executives who want
to communicate corporate values to the rank and file of their
companies, politicians who want to win an election. Parents trying to
get through to their children, teachers wanting to influence their
students, and a lot more. But all of them begin with the most basic,
and the most difficult skill: to really listen.
To really listen requires strength of character. I must be willing to
invest the time and put aside my own worries and preoccupations, and my
own agenda. I must, in a very essential sense, be willing to forget
A person with a problem is emotionally charged. Imagine that person to
be standing in a container where rational thought and feelings share
the same space. The more emotionally charged he is, the less space for
clear and coherent thought there is. That person could literally be
drowning in his problems.
But there is a sure way of lowering those emotional levels. And that is making him feel really understood.
When feeling really understood some magic walves open at the bottom of
that container and all that negative feeling is allowed to leave,
making space for rational thought. That’s when that person can
actually see the solution to his problems, which has, for all we know,
been lying in front of his eyes but were covered by all those layers
of worry, frustration and feelings of impotence.
What happens usually when I see that somebody is emotionally charged?
Let’s say a colleague of mine is in danger of being laid off by the
company? I, being basically a person of good will, want to help him and
invite him to talk about it.
The moment he starts talking I search my own memory files to see whether
something similar has happened to me in the past, whether I have some
experience level as far as this situation is concerned. Once I find a
match in my files it appears to me that I already know what he’s
talking about. And, wanting to be of help, I start to shower that
person with good advise, all the things that I did in that situation,
and how I solved the problem.
That’s called an autobiographical response, and it’s of very limited
use. Because that person feels that he has been relegated to the
sidelines while I talk about me and my problems, present or past. And if
he would have been ready to listen for advise, he would have asked
for it. Now it just seems like an imposition.
Now remember, I wanted to help that person, and the only thing I
achieved is to make sure that he won´t come back to me again if another
problem arises. I lost an excellent opportunity to diminish suffering
and to make a friend.
The only technique that works, the highest level of listening, is called
empathic listening. There is a difference between sympathy and
empathy. Sympathy means that I´m available with all my skills and
experience. That’s relatively easy.
Empathy means that I forget all that and put myself in the position of
that other person, slip (in a figurative sense, obviously) into his
shoes. And that’s mighty difficult. But it’s the only way I can really
understand (or at least come very close to understanding) of what´s
going on inside that person. If I don’t, at least initially, experience
his reality and his experience level, I may never know what's
All our realities are interwoven with emotions, they are the agent that
give spice (or pain) to our lives. There is no point in understanding
the objective problem of that person if I don´t find out what´s it
doing to him emotionally, because that’s where he really feels it,
that´s where reality is really happening to him. And I have to be
willing to suffer with him, at least temporarily.
So how does this work practically? Remember my colleague who is in
danger of being laid off by the company? Once he starts talking, the
most vital question I can ask is: “And how does that make you feel?”
You see, he might actually be happy about getting fired. He is tired of
the stress around here, and he has a better offer from a bigger
company lying in his drawer. What´s really bothering him is that his
kids will have to go to a different school, because the new company is
in a city 500 miles from here, and his boy´s grades had been slipping
I wouldn’t have stood a chance of getting to know all this if I told him
what I had done in a similar situation. It’s important to ask for and
give feedback. I might not be reading him correctly, and I might ask
him, for example “Does that make you feel nervous” so that he on the
one hand can correct me if necessary and, on the other, more
importantly, feels that I’m really trying to understand him on an
And the miracle is ready to happen. Since he feels himself really
understood, his emotional level drops and he might see a possible
solution for the problem, because he is back on a rational plane.
A lot of suffering in this world exists precisely because people feel
alone, because there is nobody to talk to, and those who listen do it
very often for their own ends. Many people around the world are
literally constipated with negative feelings.
And, let’s be honest, isn´t it a relief sometimes to forget our own
worries? That´s the pay-off we get when trying to help somebody by
really listening to him. Our problems seem to acquire a new
perspective. It’s not all that bad, after all.