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Illustration by Ashley Lee

One late night in Butler during my first season of finals, I saw a flyer for Nightline that said, “We're Here to Listen.” I remember thinking, “What does that mean?” I wasn't sure how one student listening to another's venting session could fix the very tangible problems that we were all dealing with.

Little did I know that I would be putting up those same flyers less than a year later.

When I decided to train for Nightline, Columbia/Barnard's anonymous peer-listening service, I didn't realize it would fundamentally change the way I communicated with others. 

[Related: Behind Nightline]

Nightline taught me to listen. It wasn't easy—learning how to do it was a rigorous training process, with up to five hours a week of lectures from campus professionals and practice calls and drills with experienced listeners. Instead of drawing on personal anecdotes or telling callers what I thought they should do, I learned to keep my opinions and solutions to myself. Instead, I became an emotional mirror for the caller. This is by no means intuitive. 

Our gut reaction when someone comes to us for help is almost always to try and “fix the problem.” It's hard to see people suffering—we want to do something to take that away. But Nightline teaches that this “problem-solving” misses a fundamental piece of the equation: empathy.

When we talk about helping others through difficulty, people often say, “But I don't know what to do to help.” Nightline taught me that empathy is less about doing and more about listening. Being empathetic to another's pain is a human experience—denying that experience by finding a quick fix is often invalidating. Empathy is more than saying, “I get it”; it's about reaching inside yourself and finding those same emotions so you can feel with the person. Taking time to acknowledge that someone's hardship is devastating or stressful or upsetting recognizes the undeniable role that emotions play in our lives, while problem-solving attempts to erase the experience.

By “problem-solving,” I don't mean keeping friends out of a situation that endangers their safety, or pointing people to long-term coping mechanisms (e.g., suggesting someone go for a run or go to a support group). Problem-solving is simply telling someone what to do. It's dictating what a friend fighting with their partner should do. It's telling someone crying over a failed test to just study harder for the next one. Problem-solving eliminates a space for feeling and forces action upon someone who might not be ready, willing, or able to make a decision. It also fails to accept this truth: Most of the time your friends will do what they want and need to do, regardless of your advice. Under this urge to problem-solve implicitly lies an assumption of knowing what is best, despite not having all of the lived experience that may be informing a friend's perspective. Where empathy entails standing by a friend, problem-solving means standing above a friend—even preaching to them about how they should be living their life.

Pushing this instinct aside and choosing to truly to listen is not easy. Empathy is frightening in that it requires you to be permeable and let the painful feelings seep in, to explore a place within yourself where you've stored that similar frustration, fear, or heartbreak. Sadness and desperation are hard to endure, and sometimes action does need to be taken so we can be in a better place. But before we can start moving forward, before conquering, confronting, contorting, we need to acknowledge the effects that those feelings have on our lives. Otherwise, both parties lose an opportunity to grow from that experience.

[Related: Making mountains out of mindfulness]

Last semester, previous Nightline Co-Director Zoe Pinter and I were asked if we thought wellness was a buzzword. It is the conflation of wellness and problem-solving that threatens to turn this idea into a buzzword.

This approach trivializes something essential by leaving no place for the real ways in which wellness helps us feel and heal. It's astounding that four years ago, wellness was only just starting to be a part of our vocabulary. I'm proud to see how far our community has come in providing assistance to others. Yet, what we stand to gain from putting the advice-giving pedestal aside and instead standing next to someone in their fight is a campus culture that is brave enough to be vulnerable and wise enough to be informed by its hardships.

After all, at the end of the day, most of us just need a little time to figure out what makes the most sense for us, and the best way to get there is to have someone by your side affirming that our feelings are real, significant, and understandable. 

The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in creative writing. She is the co-director of Nightline.

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