Opinion | Op-eds

The power of listening

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.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com


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Anonymous posted on

The Power of Empathy


Anonymous posted on

Doesn't seem that tricky https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QK9_Jzq0wA

Anonymous posted on

If this seems like overposting, I generally publish when I've been assaulted, or when my privacy is ignored, or when my cats cry out in pain by some action of government. I've been assaulted thousands of times over the past decade now, I'm sure that estimate is accurate....the other day one of my cats was bleeding, hair missing from its back, and two of them actually have scabs on their back as a result of being shot with energy weaponry. According to one report this results from my publication of Ronald Reagan quotes and biographical facts, indisputable and in fact from wikipedia. The federal government of course has all the power in the world to stop it.
Typically operating through puppets--including puppets in the judiciary--the right wing has for decades been committing crimes and trying to classify them to cover them up, a move explicitly forbidden by the Code of Federal Regulations. The right has accomplished its political objectives by presenting a fraction of the evidence to judicial officials who, having seen the pattern dozens of times before, could not help but realize that they were being presented with incomplete and inaccurate information.
With either the willfully blind approval or the willful ignorance of the judiciary the right has killed & stolen several of my pets and routinely shoots energy weaponry at me and my pets. Recent harm to animals include: two kittens from a pregnant stray i took in were killed a few months ago. The remaining two, just 3 months old, shake their head as government operatives shoot them with energy weaponry. They shot the eye out or removed the eye of a large really good natured stray at the port, hobbled another cat at the port, shooting it with energy weaponry, and for years routinely killed and left dead animals in my path.

A few years ago one of them threatened 'we'll just kill a cat every so often', in so many words. This has continued despite my calls to the police, the FBI, Congress, and my petitions in court. In the usual case, it appears that the right goes to a judicial crony for a ruling permitting them to harm animals to retaliate against me for my free speech. The federal government, the right wing in particular, interfered with my personal life and economic options for 3 decades, so their solution to my noting it is to kill animals. Makes perfect sense right? It does if you're a sociopathic criminal, criminally stupid, and hawkish. Invariably their lies are exposed and the wrongfulness of the harm is clear to everyone, though not until the animals have been maimed or killed. There is really only one solution, and that's to disempower them politically and to impeach them.
If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth, right? the Democrats' great accomplishment is producing the political equivalent of a Rodney King video, clearly demonstrating the lies of the right, the right Hilary Clinton correctly identified as a vast conspiracy. Confirm by examining Central District of California Cases, 01-4340, 03-9097, 08-5515, 10-5193, US Tax Court 12000-07L --though I think you want to view my US Tax Court Appeal to the 9th Circuit for a good account of their day to day assaults, a few month time slice indicative of a decade of assault, and more recently 9th Circuit case 11-56043.