“Can you envision a society where people don’t listen? What would happen?”
-Michelle Janning, Professor of Sociology
From sun-up till lights out on campus, students are talking and exchanging ideas in class, one voice followed by another. In the moments between classes we compare hours of lost sleep, pages of pending papers and readings. Even at the end of the day we log onto Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and a whole host of other social media sites only to lose ourselves in a flurry of statuses, updates and people disclosing information about themselves. Everywhere –– whether through speech or writing –– we are surrounded by a culture of talking.
“I think that we don’t really learn how to listen, we learn how to give our opinions and I think particularly in the cultural setting of a college, that’s encouraged,” reflected Peer Listeners coordinator Marie Metheny who has led the program for 10 years.
Started in fall 1985, Peer Listeners is an organization run by the Counseling Center and student leaders. Its main goal is to train students in listening skills that can be used in everyday situations, professional environments and care-based positions. In addition, the organization also puts together events on campus that promote well-being and stress-relief. Students who go through the semester long training also have the opportunity to stay involved through the years, teaching future trainees and putting together campus programing.
Students take the training for different reasons; some are just interested in honing their listening skills, others are psychology majors and others join hoping to gain skills that will be useful as resident assistant or student academic advisor.
“The basic principles are empathy, being genuine in your response and in the dynamic, being respectful of the people who come to you and who they are and what they bring, and providing confidentiality,” explained Metheny.
Students are taught how to support and work with those dealing with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, grief and a host of other issues and life events.
The trainees learn through practice; senior Miriam Moran, one of the leaders of Peer Listeners, compares it to learning a new language.
“Its kind of like learning a new language where you have to practice it and get comfortable with it and it sort of becomes part of how you think,” she said.
But instead of getting familiar with foreign words and sounds, trainees practice by role playing with realistic scenarios. Examples include listening to the loss of a grandparent, a pet or anxiety due to a low grade on a biology test.
Being in the position of a listener can be draining; you are taking on the emotions of another person and sometimes these can trigger unresolved issues within the listener.
“It can be a burden,” said Moran. “I mean, I’ve had people tell me things and I’ve had to seek help afterward because it was a stressful experience for me.”
Both Moran and Metheny emphasized the importance of self-care and understanding in order to handle such situations.
“As a peer listener it’s important that you sort of distance your concern for them from your well-being,” said Moran.
Metheny said the type of care-work that is associated with peer listening really requires this awareness.
“[When] you are doing any work like this, it’s very helpful to know how you are going to react to something so that you can separate out your own reaction but at the same time be genuine in your empathy or in your caring,” she said.
Moran often has to remind herself to stay calm when she is moved or disturbed by what she is hearing.
“The little peer listener voice tells me â€˜don’t freak out, you’ve got to remain calm for their sake'” she said.
Moran joined Peer Listeners her first semester at Whitman, and there has been no turning back for her. Even before arriving on campus, she was aware of the program and was keen on joining. An experience with a friend in high school inspired her interest.
“I had had an experience where a friend of mine in high school was going through some difficult stuff, and I sort of unofficially served in a role that I can now see as sort of like being a peer listener,” she said.
The skills Moran has learned have helped her in interpersonal relationships as well as in her professional life. She works at a winery on weekends and has come to see that in sales one has to listen in order to cater to customers.
In general, however, Peer Listeners has given Moran something that is fast becoming part of her subconscious way of thinking and relating to others.
“I think a lot of Peer Listeners is about respect and just having that sort of ingrained into my conversational patterns has been very useful for me,” she said.
An Art to Listening
Peer Listening is far more than just learning a skill set –– it also gets at what it means to be.
“There is an art to listening. It seems like we live in a culture that’s about doing, not being, and part of being is being able to listen,” said Metheny. She is quick to point out that listening isn’t equivalent to silence.
“It’s also about the questions you ask and the focus you have on the person who needs to talk or has something to say.”
The listener’s focus on the speaker is of utmost importance since Peer Listeners isn’t so much about providing advice, or finding a solution –– though those things may come out on their own.
“You’re really going to want to be focusing on them and how their experience makes them feel rather than turning the conversation back to yourself,” said Moran.
This is really all about empathy, which is the ability to feel with someone rather than for them. For Moran, it is often challenging to internalize what others are going through. Approaching listening through empathy has been a useful way for her to better grasp what someone is going through.
“Its definitely been really helpful for me to be able to listen in a way that is more empathetic,” said Moran.”I’m learning how to see others perspective rather than imposing my own feelings.”
We listen on a daily basis –– it is a natural outcome of the process of communication. But active listening is important for many reasons.
A Chance to Open Up
At Whitman, Moran observes that students are pretty open about many different facets of life, but only up to a certain extent.
“I think that Whitman students are also very open to hearing perspectives from an academic sense about personal issues, but I don’t necessarily see people being that open about their own life,” said Moran.
She explained that in order for people to open up, you need someone to listen on the other end. Peer Listeners gives students tools to help one another open up by being ready and prepared to fully listen.
Another advantage to listening skills, according to Moran, is their use in professional environments, where understanding different interests and directions is crucial. Good listening also lends itself well to advocacy; providing help and support in a social justice framework, for example, would require comprehending a group’s point of view in order to gauge what type of help they might need.
Relationships in a World of Difference
“They [listening skills] help us build relationships and empathy. They help people feel heard who might otherwise feel invisible in a sense,” said Metheny.
Professor of Sociology Michelle Janning puts listening in a larger social context.
“If people feel isolated in that they don’t know anybody, they are not quite sure who they belong to. Could part of that be nobody is listening to them, maybe?” said Janning. She went on to explain how a lack of listening or being heard can lead to social change.
Janning cited instances at Whitman where students who feel like they aren’t being heard rally for change and spark conversations on campus as one example.
But listening, in the way it is practiced by Peer Listeners, also has a significance in the increasingly globalized and volatile world we live in today.
Listening can help a person or group of people belong.
“If you feel as if the goal you had going into [a] listening experience is met and that goal is constructed differently for people, that articulates a fundamental problem of why conflicts happen. Boom, conflict,” said Janning.
In a world where ideas and meanings are socially constructed, what something means or signifies is going to vary from person to person and culture to culture. When people with differing understandings come together, close, empathetic listening can be the difference between conflict and common ground.
Peer Listeners offers training every semester –– if you are interested in signing up for Spring 2015, contact the Peer Listeners leaders or Marie Metheny.
Ten Guiding Principles of Peer Listening
Don’t give personal advice
Avoid questions that begin with â€˜why?’
Don’t interpret or make assumptions
Let the client find answers and take action in regards to their presenting problem. Your job is to listen, reflect, guide, support.
Stick with the here and now
Deal with feelings first
Know your own values and limitations
Topics Covered by Peer Listeners
Intro to active listening
Feeling, paraphrasing and how to use questions
Triggers and self-care
Anxiety and depression