As members of the Columbia community at large, each of us is, in some capacity, a listener. To be part of any community is to be a listener.
In case you haven't seen our fliers in the bathroom, Nightline is the Barnard/Columbia peer-listening service. Every night from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., our staff are available to listen to anyone in our campus community. Callers know that an anonymous, empathetic peer is here for them when they pick up the phone.
Listening is an opportunity to see the world through a new lens, through an experience that we couldn't know ourselves. It is up to us as a community to foster a space in which people can share their perspective and stories.
People have often asked, "How do you connect with your callers?" Given how different everyone's experiences can be, how can we find a thread of commonality to relate to people who are so different from us? They seem to hope the answer relates to the human condition—that we are ultimately unified by the shared experience of personhood.
But we believe that this is not the most effective way to listen. We strive to support our community not by relating personally to the stories they tell us, but by reflecting on and attempting to understand their experiences in a nonjudgmental way. This is a significant part of the reason why our staff remains anonymous. I might have been at that party, but I didn't see what happened through your eyes. I too have a dad, but he's nothing like yours. I have also felt pain, but I hurt differently than you. Telling your story to a person who doesn't know you can be a powerful experience. It can be a relief to feel like you can share your thoughts and experiences without inhibition, to know that you don't have to try to relate what you are saying to anyone else's experience, only your own.
Empathetic listeners are not looking to establish common ground, but rather to connect to the emotions being expressed. Effective listening is about more than sounding empathetic; it's about genuinely feeling empathy for the condition of the person with whom you are talking.
When someone shares something painful or difficult, their burden is lightened a little bit. As listeners, it is our duty to reflect upon what was shared, and for at least a moment, let the other person know that they need not hold these thoughts to themselves.
People don't expect you to understand exactly what they have been through, and attempting to do so can minimize the uniqueness of their story. Instead, we aim to create a space where people feel comfortable exploring their own emotions and thoughts. We want them to know that no one is judging them for what they are thinking or feeling or doing.
When approaching friends for help, it is not unusual to receive a laundry list of potential solutions in return. Though it may feel productive to offer advice and to come up with answers, doing so may not bring about any sense of relief or calmness. We want to be given the space to think and to talk things through: That's where Nightline comes in. We don't offer advice; rather we offer the space to explore situations and the emotions that accompany them.
Often we are taught that listening to someone else is either an obligation or a favor. We can forget that, by listening to others, we have the opportunity to expand our own vantage point as well. Listening instills within us (and our community) a greater sense of respect for others and their experiences. It expands our perspective.
With every call, there's a moment of hesitation at the end, of not wanting it to end, of not wanting to say goodbye to the painfully and beautifully raw vulnerable space that has formed between us. It's not that I've listened and you've talked; it's that we have both shared in an experience of empathy together.
Benjamin Goldwater is a graduating senior in the GS/JTS Joint Program. He studies biology and Jewish thought and is co-director of Nightline. To see other pieces from this Scope, click here.
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