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On Listening, Learning, Leading

by Teresa MI Schaefer, PHD

In the practice of psychotherapy, we listen. We observe. We are concerned with and seek to promote the welfare of our clients. We are humanitarians.

There are times in which we may engage in education, teaching strategies for combating disease, improving health, and bettering relationships: Times in which we are the students.

Over the last two weeks, we have been listening. We have been observing. We have been learning. As humanitarians, as humans.

We have listened to the fear, anger, and heartache of our clients, the nation, and ourselves. In our listening, we are silent but attentive.

We have observed the throbbing pain of wounds un-remedied, wounds that are hundreds of years old, wounds that are fresh. We have observed this pain as it has permeated our cities, our homes, our hearts.

We have observed the anxiety of our COVID experiences become encumbered by the anger, frustration and fear of another pandemic, racism. We have observed these tensions explode.

We are concerned. We are concerned about the people we serve and those we do not. We are concerned about our nation – for persons of color, for members of law enforcement – for they are our families, our friends, our neighbors.

We are not experts on social justice. We cannot offer broad sweeping solutions to the underpinnings of the strife. There is much that we are not expert on. What contribution any of us can make is as individual as is our person, our expertise, our intent, and our willingness to know that we do not hold all the answers but are willing to learn.

As mental health practitioners, we are experts in emotion. We know that the unleashing of emotions can be cathartic. We know that how we unleash these emotions or on whom we unleash these emotions has consequences.

We know that if we want others to listen to us that coming in with force creates one of two possibilities: fight or flight. We know that coming in with force does not keep our audience listening. We know that speaking in a measured and compassionate way, that asserting (not aggressing) what we need honors the truth that while we have needs so does the other.

We know that we need not respect a person to speak respectfully to them. How we feel and how we behave can be distinctly different.

We know that just as children need healthy leaders to grow so do we as a nation.

We seek to look towards our leaders for information, education, and guidance. Where these leaders fail, we can, as has been said before, draw on our strengths as a civil society. Different though we may be, we can unite around a common purpose. Each of us can be a leader, an agent of change. Leaders are born every day – some of us were born awhile ago. Lead.

Lead with compassion, interest, a desire to learn. Find ways to diffuse your anger, your fear so that you may effectively communicate your needs. So that others can hear you.

When a client first arrives in our office, we do not know what they need or how to help them. First, we listen. We observe. We learn. The data that we collect during this period of seeming inactivity informs us of direction and guides us in collaborating with our clients towards change.

Listen to your heart and to that of others. Observe your own actions and those of others. Teach where there is ignorance. Lead where it is needed. Be open to learning new ways.

Our world needs us to.


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