Compassionate Listening

Last week I read The Heart of Life, by Jez Hughes. It’s a rare thing – a book I think everyone ought to read. Jez is a shamanic practitioner, and in this blog I’m going to pick up on one of the healing techniques that he talks about: Compassionate Listening.

I know from conversations here and on wider social media, that I’m not alone in finding interventions from other people tiring around matters of health, and that I’m just as likely as anyone else to want to respond to suffering with useful intervention. So what can we usefully do for each other? So many books about healing offer a sense of shame and guilt – the idea that my negative thoughts or past lives are responsible for my feeling as I do, and if only I could be more positive, it would all be fine! Oddly, this idea has never caused me to feel more positive, and when I’m depressed, it usually helps to push me further under. I’m glad to say there’s none of this in The Heart of Life – it’s a very human sort of book.

Compassionate listening is just that – hearing what the other person needs to say about their experiences. Paying close attention, making it clear that you recognise and comprehend. If something is fixable, you have to be able to start by properly identifying it. If it’s not fixable, sometimes saying ‘that really is shit’ is the best we can do for each other.

Listening helps to overcome isolation. All illness is demoralising, and reduces people. If we can be heard, then we know that it doesn’t matter that we’re less useful right now, or need caring for, we still have a place. It’s easier to ask for help when you don’t feel that people are primarily relating to your utility. It is often helpful to know it’s not just you, especially around emotional distress in face of the world. There are many problems we’re better faced to overcome as communities. Listening is the first move towards being able to come together to act.

There’s more to it on an emotional level though. Listening means allowing the other person to speak. It means no one is telling them there isn’t time for this right now, or that it doesn’t matter, or something else is more important. I’ve been told to push though pain and distress countless times, and told that my suffering was less important than other things that were going on. When this happens, it locks something inside me. Practical solutions become less available, but it also causes a grief, a wounding, a sense of devaluing, if I need to cry, but no one around me thinks it matters. This is not a good place for a person to be. Endure enough of it, and you will lose your sense of person-hood.

Being listened to allows us to be people. It allows us to own and express whatever hurts, which provides rapid emotional relief all by itself. Then we just have to deal with what’s wrong, not with the struggle of hiding it and pretending to be ok. We get to matter. Someone cares enough to hear. The act of putting pain into words is releasing, and can often give back a sense of having some control over the situation. To cry, and be acceptable, is a very powerful thing.

To listen, you don’t have to be able to solve everything. You don’t have to patch things up for the other person or magically make it ok. You don’t need answers, or wisdom, or the means to change anything. Just by putting your body in a situation, and stopping, to witness, to recognise, to allow a space for hurt to be acknowledged, helps.

I think it often doesn’t help that amongst Pagans there is a suspicion that we ought to be able to use magic to fix people. People who self-identify as healers can find the long term sick really problematic. So we end up blaming people for their negativity and refusal to heal, rather than face the hard truth that maybe we don’t have anything that can help them. Listening  is good. Listening is a balm we can all bring to each other. Making time to hear does change things.

More about The Heart of Life here –


About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

2 responses to “Compassionate Listening

  • Christopher Blackwell

    It is the reason that I briefly bring up my own limitations to break the taboo and let the person know this is a perfectly normal subject to talk about, then if they want they can talk about their limitations and how they handle it.

  • Kaylee

    I have the one, single, best thing you can do for someone else is to listen. Really listen, without judgement. I don’t know how many times when someone listening to me was the one thing I really wanted. I don’t know how many times I have been thanked for listening and I felt like I didn’t do anything. It costs so little and means so much.

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