There are a lot of jobs where one person listens to another to offer a service. Mental Health Workers, Social Workers, Employment Counsellors, Teachers, Psychologists, Addiction Workers, Real Estate or Investment Brokers just to name a few.
In all these occupations, the degree to which the provider of the service creates a trusting atmosphere often dictates the length of time the consumer of the service needs to fully share and disclose. Most people are pretty good at keeping what’s really going on – the BIG stuff, sufficiently buried in a conversation, revealing the small stuff as a testing ground.
I know when I meet someone, I make the point of saying I’m going to do my best to earn their trust by creating a safe, trusting atmosphere. The quicker they come to fully trust me and share what’s really going on – the big stuff – the quicker I’ll be able to personalize the experience for them; addressing their experiences and making the experience richer.
In short, I can only help someone with what I know to be their issues if those same issues are shared with me. If a person gets around to opening up with me late in our time together, that leaves less time for an in-depth response if they’d prefer one over me being a sounding board or an empathetic ear only.
Now if words alone were all someone needed to open up and share their biggest, darkest thoughts, fears and struggles, “Trust me” would suffice. Yeah, most people have heard these uttered before and been burned trusting those they felt could be trusted, eventually to be let them down. Those same people are ironically, often part of the problems people present.
Actions which support the words spoken are much more effective at creating a trusting atmosphere. So when you’re in a job where listening to people and providing help is involved, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that those same people before you are listening and watching. In a group setting, they want to first see how you respond to other people who open up a bit. Do you make light of what somebody shared? Do you seem interested or uncomfortable? If someone in a group shares something personal, did you give them an appropriate response or steer the conversation back to your own agenda?
In my job, I hear a lot of personal tragedies, I see the pain and shame on a lot of faces as people tell me things they’ve held inside for a long time. Every so often someone says, “I don’t know why I even told you; I haven’t shared that with anybody else. I said more than I’d planned on telling you.” If you’ve ever had someone say this or something similar, you know first-hand what a responsibility and privilege comes with such a disclosure.
Of course if you haven’t the time to listen to someone or the supporting resources to offer up when someone takes you up on your offer to listen, you should be careful of inviting the disclosure in the first place. After all, you may not like a lot of what you hear; what you hear could be more than just uncomfortable. Be ready to feel angry, shocked, troubled, concerned and if you’ve never feel these things you may not be as emotionally invested as you might or should be. I don’t mean you take on their issues; never that. However, taking what someone discloses, holding it for a time with care and sensitivity, then returning it to them in a way they can better carry the load can be more of a help than you know.
You’d think in some cases, that one’s position alone puts us in a position of trust; that it should come automatically. The biggest place of trust for most people is their parent or parents. “You can tell me anything” is something a parent might say, but children know that they can often only disclose so much to a parent. How many kids have kept their gender identification secret? An unexpected pregnancy hidden, an accident with the family car, or problems with bullying.
It’s not enough to say, “you can tell me anything.” People are often conflicted about wanting to share things – big things – but also afraid of ridicule, embarrassment, hurting the listener in the process, etc. Sharing often makes a person feel vulnerable, open to judgement; and if they respect you greatly, they may not want to risk having you think less of them for their behaviour, weakness, poor choices – past and present.
Shut down, dismissed, ignored, not believed; these are also the kinds of things people who want to open up and share are afraid of. “You don’t know what you’re talking about”, “You’re smarter than that”, “I don’t want to hear this!” are examples of being shut down and dismissed.
Fail to create an atmosphere of trust and you add another worry to the person you’re trying to help who may be burdened to the point of becoming numb and paralyzed.
A key is to find out what the person disclosing would like as an outcome. Are they looking for solutions or just an ear? Rushing to ‘solve their problem’ is often NOT what they want. When you, “solve” another’s problem yourself, you remove the learning moment, seize the empowerment you could have left them with and keep them dependent.