At the end of last week’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episode, police officer Olivia Benson – played by Emmy Award winning actress Mariska Hargitay – approaches a rape victim after the alleged rapist is found not guilty at a difficult trial. The teary-eyed victim tells Benson it was not worth it.
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“Listen to me,” Benson says. “Sending him to prison isn’t going to heal you. Healing begins when someone bears witness. I saw you. I believe you.”
We then see the impact of that dawning on the young woman, movingly played by Sofia Vassilieva. Everything melts away for a moment because she feels heard.
This is an extreme – and, OK, fictional – example, but so often we underestimate the power and effect of feeling heard and making someone else feel heard. It is at the heart of meaningful, impactful communication.
When you get it, you can’t help but marvel at the difference it can make in the layers of your life – personally, professionally, casually, deeply.
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It is what prompts a young man to Skype into Oprah’s Lifeclass live broadcast to say he will be putting down his smart phone when he talks to his mother from now on because he wants her to know he’s listening. He wants to hear her, not be distracted by texts and emails. He gets it.
It is what made me purchase an exotic flower I’d never heard of – a protea – last weekend when the floral designer in the store took the time to hear my decorating thoughts and my desire for inspiration to freshen a room in my home. He put it in a glass milk jug vase with greenery and, because he had listened when I talked about the colors in the room, he tied a green ribbon around the neck. Delightful.
I wasn’t ripe for a sale. I was ripe for the right sale.
There are countless fleeting examples in our lives, but of course it goes deeper, too. When we choose friends or when they choose us, our ability to focus on and understand what they’re saying, and show them that this is so, is central to building intimacy.
“It wasn’t that I came away thinking my words brilliant, it was only that I came away feeling I had been fully heard, and because I was being fully heard I was saying everything I had to say,” Vivian Gornick writes in her collection of essays titled Approaching Eye Level. “It seemed to me, then, that ever since I could remember I’d been fighting for someone’s undivided attention in conversation. Now I had it. I could breathe easy. I didn’t have to be fast on my feet. I could think before I spoke.”
We all know the opposite feeling. Get it all out because the person “listening” is fidgeting, wanting us to cut to the chase. That person rarely gets the sale from me. And he probably doesn’t hear his mother speaking either. Friendship? Forget it. In a process of survival of the fittest, non-listeners drop out of my inner circle pretty quickly.
Keep in mind this doesn’t require the ears, per se, this brand of making someone feel heard. It’s not literal. It’s about acknowledging. Haven’t you felt ‘heard’ in an email? A Facebook status? A Tweet?
Just because we’re now used to a myriad of ways to communicate doesn’t mean the communication can’t be meaningful. Quick can also be quality. A friend who’s been holding vigil at a dying relative’s bed for days has written some touching lines to me in an email on a few occasions; after my brief, but heartfelt words of response, he thanked me for “being there” and “getting it.”
This is the stuff of life. If we can make someone feel heard in life’s toughest moments, whether friend or stranger, we are experiencing the essence of what it’s all about. And if we have been selective in surrounding ourselves with those who hear us, it signals our commitment to fully living and to our own self-esteem.
“Nothing makes me feel more alive, and in the world, than the sound of my own mind working in the presence of one that’s responsive,” Gornick writes.
Of all the things in the world I’m grateful for, the fact that I know that feeling ranks near the top of the list.
Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.nancola.com and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to FOXGamePlan@gmail.com.