In the late night hours during my year as a resident assistant, I would often find myself on the floor, or leaning against a wall, locked in a bedroom or curled up on a kitchen sofa, listening to my girls as they detailed their various struggles with homework, boys, roommates or family members. In hindsight, many of the stories represent efforts at growing into adults, something we were all working on at the time (and something I am STILL working on). At the time, I knew that my job was not to directly tell them what to do. My job was to listen. However, in my genuine desire for their well-being and in my exuberance to be be of some aid, I couldn’t help myself and I would ask questions intended to guide them to a certain conclusion. Basically I was trying to get them to see their problems through my perspective because sometimes the solution seemed so clear from where I sat. Over time, my listening eyes became trained enough that I could see where this approach led. Given enough of these loaded questions, the speaker would begin to fidget, look around and seek an escape route. The conversation would hastily come to a close and I would walk back to my room, heavy-hearted and shaking my head, completely confused at their inability to see the solution with the clarity I thought I’d offered.
It wasn’t until I had to explain my own therapy experiences to RJ that I was able to see how my understanding of listening had matured a bit. Rather than doling out sage advice or guiding with pointed questions, more often than not, I realized that my job with those residents was to help them know themselves, not as I saw them but as they were. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to see oneself clearly through a fog of trauma, conflict, or even just new ideas. It can be hard to pinpoint agitation or discontent without a safe place to empty one’s thoughts and sift through them. That is the job of a listener, to carefully receive the words of a speaker and then methodically sort through them in an effort to identify possible connections or make unbiased observations. I am grateful for the patience of those 58 residents who trusted a bit of their growth to me and patiently taught me how to listen.