Be a Humanitarian: Activist Listening

As a social worker, a big part of my role is to listen to children and families. I listen to their stories that range from their triumphs, struggles, and trauma. To build trust with my clients, I need to show them that I’m listening and that I care. This is crucial because many of the families I work with come from a context laden with a variety of adverse experiences such as poverty and violence. Many of the people I work with have also been oppressed due to their identity, socio-economic status, the color of their skin, and more. They were most likely oppressed by someone that looks like me as well (a white person). As a social worker and activist, I’ve honed my skills of active listening to ensure that I show my clients, friends, and allies that I care and am there to support their cause. Here are a few tips you can use to be an activist listener!

Don’t interrupt

This is huge. Interrupting is disrespectful and might make the person feel as though their point of view or story isn’t as important as what you have to say. Therefore, the person may begin to withdraw. Interrupting can also make the person lose their train of thought. Telling their story may require a lot of emotional energy. It might also be the first time they’re telling their story so they might need some extra time to think about how they’re going to relay it to you. As the listener, be patient and wait until they’ve completed their thought before interjecting with a statement or a question.

Body language 

If the person you’re listening to tells you to sit, look, or hold your body in a certain way, as long as it doesn’t endanger yourself, follow their instructions. It may seem rude to not make eye contact or to be turned away from them, but again, it’s about what makes the storyteller more comfortable. If they haven’t given you any sort of instruction, you typically want to make sure you’re on the same level as them or a level below them. If they’re standing, stand or sit, for example. Make sure your body is relaxed. Keep your arms to your sides or relaxed in your lap. Crossing your arms might signal disapproval or make them feel tense. Some eye contact is important. Don’t stare. You want to make sure the person knows you’re completely focused on them, however, staring can make them feel as though they’re under scrutiny. Finally, be mindful of your facial expressions. You don’t want to continue smiling if they’re crying or clearly upset. Your tone of voice is important as well. Sound interested. Lower the volume of your voice if their voice is low.

Please DON’T say “I know how you feel”

You are not them. Even if you’ve been through what you think is the same situation, you are not them. You have not lived their life. If you have gone through something similar, there are ways of communicating that without saying “I know how you feel”. You could say, “Something similar happened to me and it was awful. If so sorry you went through that.” If they ask if something similar has happened to you before, it can help them heal for you to share your story. You should only share if you feel comfortable though. 

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