I have spent some time recently reflecting and pondering on the last 44 years. Since I first stepped into a high school classroom, through the years of parenting and counselling … and I have come to the decision that ‘being heard’ may be one of our most important human needs.
Belonging is the first fundamental need because we are a social being and so being heard is a valuable pathway to meeting that core need.
I recently heard Maggie Hamilton being interviewed about her latest book, When We Become Strangers, and it gave me more food for thought to support my reflection. She explored the changing ways that we are connected and the alarming rise in loneliness around the world, including Australia. We are definitely more connected and yet at the same time more alienated. Hamilton wonders if we are losing ‘our ability to engage meaningfully’ with our families and communities, and also the natural world.
If we put aside the global pandemic, we do tend to spend less time with one-to-one attention, and less safe touch. The advances in technology have put screens and other devices everywhere. Rather than ask a parent how to do something, most of today’s kids will ask Google or Siri or maybe check out a video on YouTube. Indeed, most adults will also turn to the digital world to seek answers and solutions, rather than ask a respected wise grown-up.
Social media has led to an increase in connection and most of it has been positive. Indeed, I use the socials in my advocacy work and to help parents better understand child development. The harmful and toxic impact of being attacked for having a different view to others, though, has increased significantly over time. So rather than building connection, these interactions create further separation and can impact mental health.
Within communities this separation continues as it is difficult to greet and have a conversation with someone whose gaze is on their phone. Heck, I have been observing people waiting at train stations and it is almost impossible to make eye contact with anyone, let alone give them a smile or a nod of the head to acknowledge we have seen them.
Being heard, especially non-judgementally, has such an incredibly powerful potential to bring hope and joy to others. I learnt this over 40 years ago when I was on bus duty at a high school, and I had a random conversation with a 14-year-old girl while we were waiting for a bus that was late. It started off very casually and gradually, as the girl felt safe, it went deep. I listened, I validated how difficult things could be, and encouraged her to follow up with me if she felt I could help her. Three years later the same girl came and had another conversation with me as she was finishing her high school career. She told me how important that conversation was and that from that moment, her struggles were less and she had become a listener for her friends.
Being heard had changed her life for the best.
One of the key things to remember about giving others this golden opportunity is that we must learn to really listen. I was privileged to work as a bereavement coordinator in a hospice for a time and a very wise educator explored the importance of listening even if no one was speaking.
Being present with no attachment to needing to fill the empty space is a very powerful way of listening.
Being heard begins at birth
It is called attunement, where parents work out what their baby is trying to tell them. No matter what the parent has read or been told, they need to work out how to tune in and listen to their baby. Recognising the difference in their cries and when they need sleep or when they need be fed is all a part of connecting through ‘being heard’.
Being heard as a child
I often reassure parents that there has been no parenting book written about their child. Every child is a one-off unique miracle and the capacity to connect, to understand and to love is different for every child and often changes frequently. No wonder parenting can be confusing!
Janet Lansbury who I call a child whisperer explains often how we have to see our babies and toddlers as whole beings already who deserve to be respected. For this reason she encourages that you communicate with your baby and toddler about what’s happening in their world and check in with them before you do things like change the nappy or feed them.
Much of toddler behaviour is a form of communication. Research shows that the more connected and loved children feel, the more likely they will not need to display distress through screaming, meltdowns or tantrums. However, these displays of big ugly feelings are totally normal developmentally. Underneath them will be a call for help as they are struggling to cope with their world.
I think one of the most positive things you can do as a parent from birth until they leave home, is to be comfortable asking ‘how can I help?’
Rather than try and stop big ugly feelings or fix them, we focus on how we can help them make sense of the experience they are having, without judgement.
Being heard as a tween or teen
Given that this time of transition is very much about stepping back from our parents to grow in independence and autonomy, this can be a tricky time in homes, schools and communities.
Our emerging adolescents yearn to find safe grown-ups who can really hold a space for them and let them be heard which helps them feel they matter. These lighthouse figures can be extended family, teachers, counsellors, coaches or even neighbours, and the research shows really clearly that they just need just one significant adult ally to navigate this unpredictable journey.
Parents can learn how to listen non-judgementally and to be the safe base they need. Seeking help for a troubled teen is more about finding one safe adult who can give a teen the opportunity of being heard. This is why sometimes counselling can fail because the teen does not feel they are really being heard. Being given advice that is unwanted is a sure sign a teen is not being heard.
Being heard for those who do not speak
Please take a few minutes to watch this:
How the dishwasher has impeded family communication
There is no question that in our digitally connected world finding one-on-one time has become problematic. Some families have found (thanks to COVID lockdowns) that cooking together, gardening together, bike riding together, going on hikes together or watching movies together has given them the gift of one-on-one time that had been lost in their busy lives. Let’s hope this will not be lost.
To be honest, I think the arrival of the dishwasher has had a detrimental influence on some family communication. Doing dishes, drying the dishes and putting the dishes away with two people from one family gave lots of time for random conversations, and yes, splashing of water and flicking of tea towels.
We humans need connection to be healthy and maybe this massive increase in loneliness that Maggie Hamiliton writes about is due to shallow connection rather than deep connection. Many have experienced like me the ache for real time connection with loved ones due to the pandemic.
Let’s hope we don’t forget how important one-on-one time is once this pandemic is a memory.
The increase in mental illness and suicide may also be partly explained by profound disconnection. Rachael Kessler has explored the many levels of connection that we as humans need to be healthy and I think it’s a great reminder that if we are disconnected in one area such as family, we can build connection in another area. This is why many people have pets, or spend hours in their garden or go fishing. To be honest, a good dog is probably the best listener in the world!
- Deep connection to self
- Deep connection to another (family, friends)
- Deep connection to community (school, sport, faith, local)
- Deep connection to lineage (ancestry, cultural)
- Deep connection to nature and the environment
- Deep connection to a higher power (the mysterious, the spiritual, the non-logical)
– Rachael Kessler, The Soul Of Education (2000)
All of these different ways of connection strengthen individuals and build a profound sense of belonging that is essential for wellbeing and happiness.
Making the time to offer another human a safe space to be does not have to be a chore. Pausing in our busy lives, especially around our homes, and giving our nearest and dearest the gift of complete presence can happen every day.
It can also happen out in the world and it is most exciting when it happens unexpectedly. I have had so many magical, meaningful moments that have happened spontaneously from chatting to Aboriginal elder women on the red earth of Yolngu country in Arnhem Land, to a garden lover in Monet’s Garden in France, to a four-year-old girl in a café telling me about bugs – every moment happened because I shared the gift of ‘being heard.’
I encourage you to give this gift as often as you can. The world needs more connection and compassion to feed our fundamental need for belonging.
I recently read this beautiful quote from Licensed Clinical Social Worker Katie Hurley on the Smart Recovery Family and Friends Facebook page and felt it summed up perfectly what I was saying in this article. Thanks so much to the Smart Recovery page for letting me share this here: