Learning to listen

November 4, 2015 by Chris Lyons

The College can be a rough place to be at from time to time. With what seems like an endless supply of problem sets, response papers and a mountain of reading every night, students here face their fair share of work to do on a daily basis. But it’s often the issues that transcend that extra-long paper that can go unseen. Whether it’s problems in general, or those with a significant other or perhaps with a friend group, these are the things that can often keep someone up at night that don’t have to do with that all-too-familiar work grind. And I think those are the things that really need to be talked about with people you trust.

We as a student body are some of the kindest, strongest and most empathetic people that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, and it’s only made me a more open-minded and stronger individual because of it. But I know that I, much like many people on this campus, can get caught up in a vacuum of “us” problems. We have so much going on, whether it’s our third club meeting of the week or another two-hour practice followed by a weight lift workout, and we often get switched into “us” mode, in which it’s hard to disentangle the multitude of our woes from everyone else’s. And I think when that happens, it’s integral for us to take a step back and re-evaluate.

Listening can be difficult. Taking the time to actually suspend all thoughts and opinions about something to actually just objectively listen to it is probably one of the more challenging things we face here as students at the College. We have so much going on that sometimes it feels impossible to take the time to just stop and listen. But listening, whether it’s to a friend or an entrymate or a teammate, about whatever it is they might be going through, is a small act of kindness that can go a long way.

Mental health can oftentimes be a tricky subject to navigate. People often feel like they need to be able to sort out their problems and get their stuff together, and this happens for a variety of reasons. Some may feel like people are counting on them to thrive here, and that struggling with something means that they’re letting people down. Others may feel like it’s a sign of weakness, and asking for help, or asking someone to listen to what might be going on, just can’t be an option. And so many people continue to suffer in silence without many people knowing, and sometimes it’s hard to notice when someone might be struggling silently. I can’t charge the entire campus with the task of going around and asking each and every student to open up about everything that might be going on. But I do think that we all have the ability to alleviate some of that internal burden by just listening when someone might need to open up about something.

What really exemplifies the steps we as a community have taken towards being able to listen to others tell their stories and open up about their burdens is You Are Not Alone, a bi-annual night of support and solidarity for those who we may see around campus from time to time but that we might not know are struggling with something of their own. The trust and empathy that characterizes that evening is permeable, and while the speakers at the event are often the focus of it, I think that an even larger part of its importance is the listening. When you can pack over 300 students into a room to sit and listen to another fellow student open up about their mental, emotional or social wellbeing, I think that something remarkable has been accomplished. There’s something about someone being able to trust this student body enough to open up about a struggle of theirs that is awe-inspiring to me. The strength lies not only in the speakers for being able to open up, but in the student body as well for being able to actively and empathetically listen.

Taking the time to listen can seem like a simple task, but it has huge implications for someone that really might need it. Catching up with that friend you haven’t seen in a while over dinner or following up with someone that opened up to you about something can really make all the difference. Being a student here can take its toll sometimes, and we often let things build up to a point where it becomes hard to manage it all effectively. So I ask the students of the College to do two things: talk and listen. If you feel like things are piling up on you, talk to someone you trust about it. And on the other side of that, take the time to really listen to someone. It’s impossible to be there for everyone 24 hours a day, and it is important to look out for yourself first before helping out someone else. But incorporating an active listening style into your day-to-day life can really make the difference for someone who may need it.

Chris Lyons ’17 is a psychology major and neuroscience concentrator from Point Pleasant, N.J. He lives in Williams Hall. 

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