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Empathy Now…Serenity Later

Dear Ally,

Finals week is getting closer and stress levels are ramping up. So, what can you do to ease your anxiety? I could tell you all the common advice like take care of yourself, exercise, get plenty of sleep, listen to music, mediate, read a book, watch a movie, etc. All of this is great advice and many of these techniques have helped me. But what I’m going to suggest is somewhat unconventional and even seems counter-intuitive:  listen to others.

This advice comes from a webinar I recently attended with colleagues about fostering resilience in students, but I’ve also known it to work for me. Notice that I didn’t say “talk with others.” This is because the important part is the listening. When you talk, especially about what is stressing you out, the focus is on you and your to-do-list. Focus on the other person’s feelings and experience. At the very least, you’ll receive a mini mental vacation, but you could also walk away with a new perspective on your problems. Listening also generates connection, builds trust, and will leave you with a better sense of belonging.

Tonight I volunteered to make phone calls for our annual phonathon where we ask alumni to donate money to our college. I’ve been stressing about an exam I have to finish writing as well as a grant proposal. I certainly could think of better things to do with my evening. But after listening to my former students tell me about their accomplishments and joys, I left school smiling and with a much lighter heart. Most of these conversations were only 5-10 minutes long, but that was long enough to gather exciting news and share my own news.

It takes practice to do what is deemed “active listening” or “empathic listening,” which is the goal. The active listener is present in the moment and fully engaged in the conversation. This is hard to do when there are distractions such as text messages or TV. In order to put yourself in the other person’s place, you’ll want to go to a quiet place that is free of interruptions. Active listening cannot be accomplished via text message or other electronic means – eye contact, facial expressions, and body language are very important. If you can at least listen to someone on the phone, you’ll at least hear the expression of their voice and they yours.

You might be sarcastically thinking, “Yes, that’s exactly what I need is for someone to dump their problems on me.” That’s just what I used to think. In the past when I was stressed, I’d pull away from people and concentrate on what I needed to get done, desiring to keep my life simple and uncomplicated. But it is amazing what interesting things you can find out about other people and you might find someone who can relate to something you’re going through. Listening can also help you get along better with those that are close to you because you’ll gain a better understanding of where they are coming from. This might be especially important during roommate disputes.

I hope you decide to give it a try and that you have a wonderful week! And if you ever need someone to listen to you, I’m just a phone call away.

Love,

Aunt Sarah

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