We had a newcomer in our Al-Anon meeting this week. She was in tears, and I so remembered that first day I walked into my first Al-Anon meeting. I was in so much pain. I was afraid. The only thing I could do was cry. I was so overwhelmed with my life, and what I needed to do. I was terrified of what I needed to do. I think I cried the entire first year I went to meetings. If I opened my mouth to talk, the tears started. It was such a relief to just let things out. I wasn’t listened to at home, and these people listened to me.
Listening is very powerful. At twelve step groups, no cross talk is allowed. What that means is that they will only listen to me share. No one can comment on my share, give me advice, tell me how to feel or anything else. There is a purpose in that. I didn’t really understand it at first. I realized the power of being heard after a meeting one day. I had shared about some problems in my marriage. A woman who was new to the group and didn’t know any better, came up to the meeting and made a comment to me about how “that’s just the way men are. You have to accept it.” I felt so much shame came over me. I had been vulnerable and shared something very painful, and then I was told to just accept it. I felt “wrong”. I felt stupid. I felt ashamed that I thought this was not something normal.
My second marriage was verbally and emotionally abusive. There was also a lot of control and manipulation around financial matters. To put it mildly, I was not being treated well. I had gotten so used to it that I didn’t realize how bad it was or how “small” I was becoming. It was beginning to kill my spirit. That was when I started going to groups. I joined a women’s circle that was affiliated with Woman Within, an organization that trains women on how to support each other and how to process feelings. Every other week for about three years, I met with a small circle of women and talked about what was going on with me and my life. I cried, I raged, I talked, and I laughed. They just listened.
I credit the listening with helping me see the reality of my situation. It was not anything any of the women said, for they never said anything unless I asked for advice or feedback. Having a space where I could talk without being cut off, ignored, yelled at or minimized allowed me to hear myself tell my own story. Because they didn’t stop me, I could finish my sentences. Because they didn’t give advice, I could sit in the puddle of my tears and feel my pain. Because they didn’t judge me, I could begin to make judgments on my own about what was happening in my life. It took a year and a half of doing this before I got sick of hearing my own story. I got sick of crying. I got sick of feeling my own intolerable pain. I got sick and tired of being sick and tired. The powerful woman from inside me started to stand up and take care of myself by setting boundaries, pushing back, and eventually leaving the situation when nothing changed. It was the listening that gave me back my power.
My own listening teaches me things. The things I learn and the things I hear from others change the way my brain is wired. After hearing people share about similar situations and similar feelings, I start to consider different solutions and ways of handling life. On my own, I only have one or two solutions in my repertoire. When listening to a group of people with the same issues, I have a whole host of solutions that may or may not fit my situation. When I listen, I feel less overwhelmed. I feel less alone. I feel normal-even sane.
But, it’s hard to just listen. I have a friend right now going through a lot of drama and chaos, and I don’t want him to hurt. I care about him, and I want the problems to be resolved. I give him advice to make me feel better. I know how bad that is, so then I feel guilty for giving advice. I do better the next time. But, it’s hard for somebody like me. I want to help. My heart is in the right place, but I have to remember the power of listening. Because, the ultimate goal is not to make me feel better, it’s to help another person find their own strength and their own way. My talking gets in the way of that.
Effective Ways to Listen:
- Just keep saying, “Tell me more about that” and don’t respond with opinions or advice.
- Repeat what they say in paraphrase and then ask, “Do I have that right?”
- Ask them what they “feel” – try to stay out of the story-the story is just details.
- Listen and ask, “Do you want me to listen, or do you want feedback?”
- Pull up a chair, pay attention and ask questions.
- Allow for silence.
- Don’t hand someone a tissue if they are crying. Often people see that as a recommendation to “stop crying”.
- Empathize by restating the emotion they are feeling or the one you imagine they might feel in this situation.
- If I start getting anxious and wanting to fix the problem, I do some deep breathing and sometimes sit on my hands. I can’t talk without my hands..haha