Sunday, August 26, 2012

Listening as part of healing

My work with MCC has prompted me to think about aspects of healing that would follow tragic events.  What qualities do community environments have that promote healing?  What are specific actions within communities that promote healing.  What if people are not in a community that would nourish a healing process? How is healing a psychosocial process?

Reflecting back on the interviews I had with several individuals who had been displaced from their homes as the result of violence or oppression against them by an armed group in Colombia helps me approach these very large questions.  With many of the people I interviewed there was a combination of joy and sadness when they told their stories.  Sadness came from the obvious losses they had suffered.  For some of the participants it was evident that the memories and emotions from the traumatic events were held close to their hearts.  In many cases the sadness would be followed with joy or some type of relief after having told their story.  Often the joy would be expressed through the gratefulness they had for now being in a supportive community and in the gratitude for having someone to listen to their story.  While the end goal of the interview project was not to simply listen to people's stories, the act of listening is a powerful tool that is often used in the church communities with people who have suffered traumatic events.

The process of someone telling a story and having another community member listen to the story can be a psychologically healing experience because they are able to express their emotions and thoughts not only to themselves but also to someone else and potentially to a supportive community.  The act of connecting to others in a community is an important component of psychosocial healing because it gives the individual a sense that they are not alone.  Often Christian communities evoke the image of Christ who is able to carry the burdens of our sins because they are too much to carry alone.  I think of this same image when I think about what a community can do for its individual members.  Traumatic events such as being displaced from your home and seeing family members killed are not events that anyone can handle on their own.  A strong community can help people walk through times of suffering and loss, sharing the burden of the pain through the act of listening.

Obviously the act of listening is not all that should be done, but its power to relieve pain is often underestimated and it is a place to start.  So, if listening is such a powerful tool, what qualities exist in a community that would promote listening to its members?


  1. Nate, so glad you posted! It reminded me of in my own work how often and easily people break down when telling their stories, in this case the stress and challenges of being a caregiver. Sometimes I see it coming (and I often expect it), but it also continues to take me by surprise because it happens so quickly when we first start talking, and often all it takes is "you know, you're doing a good job" or "what you're doing is very difficult" or something similar. And it's often people who don't easily cry. All of this to say, I think that's a big piece of social work, the allowing/creating a situation where people can say what they're feeling but feel guilty for feeling, what they haven't identified yet themselves, what they've been holding in (and then validation of those feelings). I've had conversations with colleagues about feeling that you haven't done enough to help or to change a person's situation, and we remind each other how important and healing the act of listening itself truly is. One of those sayings that floats around the internet that I'm reminded of is "People cry not because they are weak but because they've been strong for too long."

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Lora. The aspect of listening to people with alzheimer's poses other elements I hadn't thought about. What effects to conversations have on people who don't remember the conversations. Even if they don't remember details I wonder if the feeling of being accepted by someone who is listening to them stays with them. Does the healing aspect of having a sense of belonging to a community or a feeling of importance that comes with being listened have lasting effects even if the details of the conversation are not remembered. Another aspect I am thinking about is the difference between being listened to by people who are a part of the community of that person verses being listened to by someone who is not part of that community. The idea of having a connection to not just an individual but a community seems to be something that would be important.