When you are a counselor or a therapist and you make a living off of helping people, you are, first and foremost, a listener. And you become good at it. You hear the nuances in tone, read the shifts in body language, and can often sense tears before they start. You are a confidant, you are a refuge, sometimes you are even a sage.
This skill spills over into your personal life. Listening becomes your default setting; you’re so used to doing it that you often don’t even know you’re doing it, and so it is not unusual for people—all people, not just your clients—to lay their troubles at your feet, deliver confessions in hushed whispers, confide dreams with blushing cheeks and in a halting tone lest you laugh at them (yet you never do. You are a counselor.).
When you listen for a living or, perhaps a better distinction: when living becomes listening, you can forget to talk. And there is a sweeping sort of irony in hearing the secrets of so many while your own go unspoken—even the things that are not particularly confidential. After all, no one can hear while you are listening. The stage is not yours, and you are used to that.
Until you are not.
Last night I had a conversation within which I was asked a reflective question solely about myself, and the query was not perfunctory—the person asking genuinely wanted to know, and what’s more, the question was not close-ended; it was an invitation to talk.
My first reaction—and I am a little saddened to admit it—was surprise. To be given the floor was so unexpected. Counselors are life’s teleprompters, we occupy the stage in a more unobtrusive way than most people, so when someone finds us—and not just what we can do for them, or help them with—but US, as individuals, to be the subject they want to discuss….?
It should not feel so foreign; a personal conversation should, after all, be “personal”, yet the fact that I buoyantly rattled off a five-minute long answer to a simple open-ended question, tells me that the dialogue I shared was far more meaningful—and necessary—than I knew that I needed.
Sometimes we don’t know we’re parched till we’re given a cold glass of water. We don’t realize that the fulcrum has been pushed so far to the edge that now our internal balance beam resembles a ramp (and nasty stuff gets dumped from ramps). We don’t see that our role has become our reflex and that as such we have trained ourselves—and the people in our personal lives— to always put us in the ‘listener’s chair’ first.
I challenge anyone in the helping profession who reads this to actively remove yourself from the listener’s chair for just one night. In turn I challenge anyone who loves a helper to put yourself in the listener’s chair for just one night. The impact it will make to talk instead of listen, and listen instead of talk, will be worth any discomfort. Just…try it.