I see her run back to the chair where her bag sits and relieved she takes it in both hands and holds it tight. We all know better than to leave our belongings sitting around at Rough Edges with the present company. She is flustered and I can tell that this is not a good day for her. I know this woman enough to know that she had been recently sleeping rough in various locations around our area.
I wander over and for a brief moment I prepare myself. I have not spoken to this women properly before although we know each others names. In this second I know I need to do something that I have trained many to do in the past.
I need to listen.
I sit down next to her and I say the words that I know are going to keep me in the one spot for some time. Hey Rhonda (made up name) are you ok??? You seem upset.”
Rhonda begins to unload and for the next 20 minutes I don’t dare say a word. I don’t speak, I don’t look at my phone or let my mind wonder. I do whatever I can to make Rhonda know that I am paying attention.
There is only one thing you can do to let people know that you are in fact paying attention.
You need to pay attention.
I sit and I listen, simply listen, and I watch as Rhonda tells me everything that has happened to lead her to this mood that she is in.
I see her move through emotions, from tears pouring down her face as she explains the desperate situation of sleeping rough as a woman in Sydney, to rage as she tells me the betrayal she feels of the people who have let her down. She speaks about frustration of dealing with services like housing and the relief she feels when people genuinely understand her and assist her. She shows me determination as she talks about the month it’s been since she had been on ice.
I sit and I do my best to empathise. I resist every natural inclination that my mind throws at me. Certain sentences that we all think of when people tell us their issues. Things that start with phrases like “you know what you should do…” or “At least you don’t have…” these phrases that are very rarely needed and never solve an issue. In my experience they tend to drive a wedge through true connection.
I steer clear of advice because I know there isn’t much I can say that is genuinely going to help Rhonda, how would any advice I give help her, she has lived this experience that I have only heard about.
I allow only certain types of communication to be output from my mind. I hold her hand when she cries and I shake my head when she is angry. I laugh when she jokes and I smile when she tells me of good times.
Rhonda speaks until she feels better, we stand and she makes a joke as we part ways and I can tell you that that moment right there was the most satisfied I have felt in my career.
You see friends in the past and since this occasion I have constantly got this wrong. I have tried to tell the person my thoughts on the matter despite them being uninvited and unrequired. But on this occasion, I can confidently say “I got it right.”
Why is it so hard for us to just listen? Why is it so hard to think that maybe all the person really needs is to simply be heard, be understood, so when they confront their battles they do so with the confidence that some one is on their side. When we train volunteers to be ready for rough edges we train them in the use of empathy. The ability that humans have to feel with some one rather than for someone. The ability to not just mentally consider their point of view but emotionally take part in their suffering.
We all have the experience of receiving advice we don’t need when we tell people our issues, yet we don’t seem to learn from this. I don’t need to know what to do next all I want is that someone understand my frustration. I can work this through on my own but knowing you see my struggle and knowing you know my pain somehow gives me the resilience to take the steps.
Proverbs 18:13 If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.
How often do we do this, answer a question that was never asked of us. Yet if we simply sit and listen we don’t only provide someone with emotional support we leave them with the power to create their own solution.
I am not saying don’t give advice to anyone. There are relationships where this is necessary, where you’d be letting the person down if you didn’t. Or better still when someone asks you for advice, with our pride in play, what a beautiful moment. I am simply saying as proverbs suggests be slow to give your advice and make sure you have heard them into a place where they can receive it.
So friends, pray for the Rough Edges community that this be a place where we can listen to each other, we can build each other up through the connections we foster. Pray friends that this is a place where understanding is valued above judgement and everyone is welcome.
Rhonda visits us regularly, she still struggles with her addiction but is now housed thanks to the great work of several services in the area as well as rough edges and she is focused on recovery. I listen to her whenever I can.
St John's Community Services