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Episode 4 -- May 12, 2020

Active Listening: Caring for Others while Caring for Ourselves

During the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are providing care for others, both professionally as well as personally. Kids are home. People are in hospitals or quarantining in their own homes. Everyone is wondering and worrying. We are scared, we are tired, we are sick. How can we help each other? Recovery calls us to serve others--and, in doing so, we help keep ourselves on the path of recovery. And people who are caregivers during this health crisis need someone to listen to them. So, let's reach out. Call each other. Get on Skype or FaceTime. Ask friends how they're doing...and listen. We can't offer a hug right now, but we can offer an ear...and a heart. You and your recovery will be better for it. Here are some tips from Take Good Care: Finding Your Joy in Compassionate Caregiving by Cynthia Orange. It has been edited for brevity.

Active listening is a skill that comes in handy anytime, but it is especially useful in caregiving situations. You may find these helpful the next time you have an opportunity to practice being a listening presence:

  • When someone seems to have something they need to talk about, try giving them your full attention by focusing on them and what they are saying. Turn off the television, the radio, and your computer, and turn toward the speaker so you can observe their body language. Be honest about your time. If you are in the middle of something that cannot be interrupted, apologize and schedule a time when you can give them your full attention and focus.
  • Listening isn't only done with the ears; our body language, posture, and level of attentiveness all say something about our interest and concern. Show you are listening by asking for clarification when needed, by making eye contact, and by adding an occasional "uh-huh" or "I see," or by nodding your head.
  • Show that you understand by occasionally restating (paraphrasing) what the other person has said by asking things like "Are you saying such and such?" or saying, "What I heard you say is..."
  • Try to listen without judgment and resist the urge to interject your opinion. Be aware of your personal triggers or filters--things that, because of your own experiences or history, might cause you to react with horror, anger, or fear. If a powerful emotion arises that distracts you momentarily, it's okay to apologize by saying something like "I'm sorry. That part of your story struck an emotional chord for me that took me away for a second. Could you repeat your last sentence? I really want to hear what you have to say." Be honest if you need a break by saying something like "I'm really glad you're telling me about your experience, but this is hard for both of us, and I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed. Could we do this again tomorrow?"
  • Resist saying, "I know how you feel."
  • Make room for silence, and give the speaker time to gather their thoughts. It's fine to ask if they're done speaking before you respond.
  • Resist the temptation to give advice.
  • Validate the speaker's feelings by saying something like "That must have been difficult," or "That sounds really frightening."
  • Finally, it's important to know when to back off. Pay attention to their body language as well as their words. If they seem agitated or emotionally overwhelmed, check in with them by asking how they're doing or if they want to take a break.

When we listen, we join what a friend of mine calls the Sisterhood or Brotherhood of the Bloody Tongues, because sometimes it feels like we might bite our tongues right off when we want so much to jump in and offer our advice or opinion or tell our own stories. This doesn't mean we take a vow of silence. If we have information about a resource, a doctor, a medical treatment, a book, or something else that we think might be helpful and welcome, I think it's fine to check it out by saying something like "My brother had good luck with a new treatment regimen. I can send you information if you think it would be useful."

Once again, it comes down to trusting your best caregiving instincts and your ability to know whether you are being helpful or crossing a boundary. Well-meaning folks can often overwhelm with tons of studies and advice, information about miracle cures, even conspiracy theories.

Much of the art of caregiving is about paying close attention to the cues a care receiver gives. Sometimes a person we're caring for may want to talk about the problem at hand; sometimes they may want to talk about something--anything--else. As we flex our caregiving muscles, we get more adept at reading these cues.

This recently happened with dear friends whose brother-in-law has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. They are in one of the smaller circles of support for this family and, after a particularly long and emotionally draining day at the hospital, they called to ask if my husband and I could come over for a bite to eat and to play cards. "We really need to laugh a little," they said. When we got to their house, my husband wisely asked, "Do you want to talk about it?" They did--but only for a short while. So they talked and we listened. They cried, and we hugged them. Then we did play cards. And we did laugh, as we always do. I left, thinking how they had modeled both healthy caregiving and care receiving. They were clear about where they needed to be in the circle of care for their brother-in-law and his family, and where they needed us to be in our care for them.

About the Author:
Cynthia Orange is the author of two Nautilus Award-winning books: Shock Waves: A Practical Guide to Living with a Loved One's PTSD and her newest title Take Good Care. The facilitator of a caregivers' support group, Cynthia--along with her husband, a Vietnam combat veteran¿often speaks to audiences about the effects of trauma. Her work has been published throughout the United States, and she has written hundreds of articles about addiction, recovery, parenting, post-traumatic stress disorder, and caregiving.

© 2017 by Cynthia Orange
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