I received a wide range of reactions to my previous commentaries on the #metoo movement. They spanned from blaming women for their contributions to being harassed and abused, to interpreting the commentaries as not giving enough attention to the abuse that has happened to men, to gratitude.
For me, the parallels in reaction to the “Black Lives Matter” movement are remarkable.
Happily, I heard many more calls of support than the other reactions. This gives me hope that we can change our relationship to power and use it as a way to heal, respect and uplift everybody.
To that end, today, I want to focus on the quality of listening we can provide the women who are speaking out. I do so because many of the women I have been hearing from are feeling shame and guilt. I feel sadness because they are taking on blame for the harassment and abuse that they did not cause.
As a long-time Nonviolent Communication and Restorative practitioner, I notice that it is common for “victims” of abuse, crime, harm or life tragedies to deeply question themselves and want answers to, “Why?”, in particular, “Why me?” The questions can be misdirected. Many times, especially for people who have less power, the answer is that the events are not personal, and have everything to do with the persons who created the harm. And sometimes, the answer speaks to a randomness of life’s ups and downs.
To help people, in this case women, get out of the spiral of guilt, shame and self-questioning that comes with trying to understand, “Why?”, it is important that we sit by their side and listen to them retell their stories as many times as they need till they feel deeply heard and seen. This will help them heal and become empowered.
To deeply listen means not lapsing into our cultural habit of advice giving, questioning, judging, pointing out faults, or offering stories of similar or more tragic woes. It means to “zip our lips” and put the spot light of attention and care on the women who are coming out of the shadows of secrecy and finally speaking out.
At one of my recent “Connect before you Correct” workshops, to experientially demonstrate the difference between being heard and being advised, questioned or judged or one-upped with a story, I asked for a volunteer to be at the receiving end of both. After we were done with the first part of the exercise, during which the rest of the participants doled out advise and judgments and stories, he described how angry and disconnected he felt. He said he understood why his family and colleagues shut down when he did the same. After being deeply heard, he described how much more connected, calm, empowered, trusted and clear of his pain he felt.
When listening to these women, if you find that you want to talk, stop. Breathe. Notice your surroundings. Acknowledge your own discomfort and desire to fix the pain. And then, sit quietly and offer your full attention. Let the spot light be on the women speaking out.
If you are absolutely lost and don’t know how to help, be honest. Divulge something like, “I am not sure how exactly to be here for you. I am wanting to support you. The best I know to do now is to sit here and listen. Would that be helpful?” By stating where you are, offering an option of support, and asking if that is helpful, you are creating a respectful exchange of support – restoring their dignity.
If they ask for advice or a perspective, double check that you understand what they are saying and what they specifically need before offering a perspective or advice. Sometimes the best advise to offer them is for them to engage in activities and be in situations that will strengthen them physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually.
If you hear them go into self-blame or take responsibility for what is not theirs, you may want to reflect back to them, “Are you open to considering that it was a horrible thing that happened to you, not because of you? You did not cause it, and you could not have controlled it.”
As I recently heard, “Don’t listen to answer, listen to support.” The women who are speaking out now need to be heard so that they can reclaim their dignity and peace of mind. Offer them your listening ears.
Jessica Dancingheart is a personal and organizational consultant. Find out more at openingtopossibilities.com.