Listening, truly listening, is a much undervalued and all too rare commodity in our modern world. I am as guilty as anyone at putting speaking first, asserting my beliefs, and listening only as an afterthought.
I never used to be this way. As a child, a teenager, and throughout my twenties, I seldom spoke, so listening dominated all my interactions.
In those days, I attracted a lot of talkers. People I barely knew would open up to me the way I imagine they might divulge secrets to a priest or minister. I would sit in silence, nodding, seldom commenting, and if I did say anything, it would be something like, “I’m sorry to hear that,” or perhaps, “That’s no good,” or, “I hope you can sort that out soon.”
These were phrases I had overheard adults say in conversation or had picked up watching movies or TV.
I didn’t know it back then, but I was Autistic, and this was me studying, taking on board ‘scripts’ that would serve me well in the years to come. I had taught myself to become a great listener. I validated the feelings of everyone I came into contact with, seldom expressing an original thought or opinion of my own.
Of course, the people I knew at the time loved it. But as I’ve aged, I have started to put my beliefs and ideas first (not on its own a sin); but listening and being able to validate the feelings of others, to empathise with them, are skills of mine that have unfortunately dulled with the passing of time.
Discovering recently that I’m Autistic has brought all of this to the fore. There is little, I know now, as invalidating as revealing to someone that you’ve been diagnosed as Autistic, a life-altering event, that you’ve in fact been Autistic your whole life, only to have them respond, before you’ve even had time to draw breath, that they think they might be Autistic or “on the spectrum” too.
I’m sure they don’t mean to be so careless, as I don’t when I’m too busy speaking and not listening – waxing lyrical about something I probably know very little about. But I know that a simple nod and compassionate question – Are you all right? or What’s that like for you? – something that puts the focus on what I’m saying rather than on what they have to offer, would go a long way towards making me feel that choosing to disclose to them in the first place had actually been worthwhile.
There’s a clichéd view of Autistic people from within non-Autistic circles that we’re all cold and unfeeling. My view, however, is that Autistic people can be extremely polite and thoughtful because we’ve often ‘learnt’ how to live and behave via the aforementioned scripts – especially those of us diagnosed much later in life.
As a consequence, we feel the emotions and pain of others even more deeply, not less, and therefore are also capable of displaying empathy that is next level.
Of course, that statement is also a generalisation. There is much more grey in the world than many of us would comfortably admit.
All of this is, obviously, also just my opinion. It’s the luxury us writers have in espousing one’s views.
But each of us does still have the choice to listen and accept the feelings and reality of others – even if we don’t agree with them. By doing so we might just get lucky and be able to make a difference to the life of someone who’s struggling, who’s in pain, who we would otherwise stomp all over and leave unheard.
Our health professionals can also be better listeners. Our decision makers, our friends and family as well.
It’s something I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about lately. If you read this post, I hope you’ll also stop for a moment and consider whether you can do a bit less talking and opinion-giving – and a little more listening and empathising, too.
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