On Being Heard

We lash out because we haven’t been listened to, not because we’ve been listened to too much.

At the end of the day, sometimes what we really need is not for someone to agree with us, or to give us advice, but simply to hear us; to validate our feelings, to recognise our inner turmoil, and to say in the glimmer in their eye or the slight curl of their lips, that they hear us; we want to be told what we feel, is real.

Often (and unfortunately, too often), when we pour our hearts out to someone, they miss the point. We may be complaining about how hard we are finding life, and they respond by telling us just how good we have it. Or, we may be relaying an inner turmoil we are experiencing, and they try to give us advice on how to deal with it. That is all well and good; it often comes from a place of love. But, sometimes what we really need, the only thing we need, is for our feelings to be recognised, and through this, for someone to agree that what we feel is real.

This is part of the power of a good psychologist or friend. They won’t tell us what we should do, but rather, will listen and affirm what we are feeling. They will tell us, without passing judgement or providing advice, that how we feel is indeed valid. Sometimes, that’s all we need: someone outside of ourselves to say that it really is understandable why we feel the way we do.

The hidden danger in feelings that go unrecognised is they do not go away. They may fade from conscious perception, but do not disappear. They leave traces, scars on the psyche that must be attended to if they are to properly heal. Sometimes people cannot do this for themselves, and having someone else validate and accept certain feelings and thoughts is a safe and reassuring way to let them come to the surface, be dealt with, and ultimately, allow the process of healing to begin.

At the heart of really hearing someone is: validation, compassion and acceptance; sometimes, the very things the speaker cannot grant themselves. This ‘emotional nectar’, as Allain De Botton calls it, is crucial in affirming thoughts and feelings that someone may be too meek or unwilling to accept themselves. When we are falling apart and life becomes too much, sometimes the most powerful remedy is simply another person who can look you in the eyes and say (with words or without them) ‘I hear you’ and give you a big hug.

Some winning phrases might include:

  • Wow, the way [x] made you felt must have been really…
  • It must feel terrible the way that…
  • That sounds really rough. What do you think you should do?
  • I can hear how you’re feeling, you must want to…
  • Are you feeling really…
  • I understand how you feel, if [x] happened to me I would…

These simple reflective sentences don’t diminish or ignore what is said. They are not empty verbal cues. They are, rather, prompts to help recognise and validate feelings and encourage their elaboration; that is, to create a space where the person speaking, feels like they can keep talking because they are finally being heard. And at the end of the day, maybe that is all we really need.

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