The pandemic has brought up many, many questions that we’ve never had to answer before: Do we see our grandparents? Do we attend the larger gathering? Should we just stay home? For a while? Do we avoid certain loved ones for their safety, for our safety, both? Can we hold hands? Can we hug? Are we over-reacting? Under-reacting? Doing all the wrong things?
The pandemic has also made many interactions feel awkward and stressful, and relationships more difficult: How do you connect with loved ones when you rarely see them in person? How do you connect when most people are wearing masks? How do you connect when you’ve been cooped up with your family and really need a break? How do you connect to your elderly relatives when you’re not even allowed to visit them?
On top of all of that, many of us are also stressed about our jobs, our kids’ school situations, and the state of the world, and we might not have the energy to devote to our deepest, most important bonds.
But there’s something we can do, even if we’re keeping our distance or wearing a mask, even if we’re exhausted and overwhelmed with zero energy: We can listen.
In fact, listening is one of the best ways to cultivate our connection with anyone. In her excellent book Self-Compassion for Parents: Nurture Your Child by Caring for Yourself, psychologist and author Susan M. Pollak, EdD, recounts an exercise she did while in a training: She and other clinicians took turns speaking for 3 minutes while everyone else listened without interrupting or saying a word.
It was powerful and healing—even more so than any advice they could’ve given each other.
We can do the same today with our loved ones. We can practice “listening with compassion” with our families, whether we’re sitting in the same room, using video chat, or talking on the phone. In fact, some research suggests that we’re better able to detect another person’s emotions by listening to their voice, so even though phone calls can feel like a less-than option, they might actually be the best option.
In Self-Compassion for Parents, Pollak shares these suggestions for listening:
- Begin by closing your eyes or keeping them slightly open.
- Listen to the surrounding sounds, such as the rain, birds, or cars.
- Imagine that your body is a big ear. Listen with your heart and your entire being.
- Reflect on a person you know that’s a great listener and the qualities you sense as they’re listening to you, such as respect and lack of judgment.
- Reflect on what keeps you from listening to others (such as listening to reply versus listening to understand).
- When you are listening to someone, set an intention to be open, listening from your heart (as well as your head) and then noticing what it’s like not to interrupt, judge, or debate.
Listening to someone is really one of the greatest gifts we can give them, regardless of what’s going on around us, because we communicate so many important things just by being open and quiet and giving our full attention:
By listening, we convey that yes, you and your feelings and your struggles matter. We convey that yes, I see you. I see your pain. I celebrate your joy.
And I am here. With you.
When someone has listened to you in this way, you know first-hand just how soul-nourishing it can really be. And, thankfully, you have the opportunity to do that for someone else, even when times are tough.