We all know the story of Red Riding Hood and her encounter with the Big Bad Wolf posing as her grandmother.
“Why Grandma, what big ears you have”.
“The better to hear you with, my dear”.
Big Bad, salivating at the thought of this sweet snack before him, knew the best way to convince her to trust him was to promise to see and hear her.
That’s what we all want, after all.
We want to be really seen.
We want to be really heard.
Unfortunately there is so much background noise; so many competing images around us, it is getting harder and harder to clearly see or hear each other.
As social workers, we hear our clients every day. They share, with us, information that could be key to unlocking the truth of their pain. But just listening is not enough. Because years of trauma can create, within a person, a strong wall of distrust. Survival means keeping things locked behind the wall. If we do not invest the time and energy engaging and building trust, the information we get will be a practiced response; a smattering of surface information hiding a deeply protected truth.
Listening is passive. Hearing requires effort. Hearing someone means listening for content, motivation and meaning. Hearing requires suspension of judgement and our promise to reach for understanding.
Years ago, I interviewed a 10 year old boy, who had exhibited signs of molestation. He denied the abuse. As we talked, I watched his downcast eyes and his blank expression as he tried to convince me of the misunderstanding. He portrayed every sign of a guilty, conscious-driven child. After listening for a bit more, I softly asked him, “you know that none of this is your fault, right”?
His eyes, afraid and ashamed, met mine. I shared with him how often adults who abuse children accuse the children of “making them do it.” But it wasnt true.
He looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “but he said It was my fault”.
After that statement, he shared about the abuse. We were able to protect him and to ensure that he received the therapy services to work through the trauma.
I become very disappointed when I read documentation of a single, hurried interview with a traumatized client. Overworked staff, juggling too many lives, ask the questions, jot down the answers, taking the statement at face value, without really hearing. No effort of engagement rarely yields the whole truth. Judgements are made with no concerted effort to really hear. We can miss so much. We do miss so much.
I talked with a foster parent recently who was very stressed due to the trauma behavior of the child in her home. She worried about his increasing outbursts and devolving mental health. I met her at her home to listen to her concerns. As she talked about him, I saw the connection.
I heard her. Her fears for him related to her own past when she had issues and felt no one attended. Together, face to face, we came up with ways that her foster child’s needs would be met. Afterwards when I asked her what else I could do to support her, her answer surprised me.
” You answered the phone and came to see me. Then, without making me feel bad, you heard me. That’s all I need. I need to be heard”.
Those words echoed in my mind as I drove away. How do I challenge my staff to understand?
All we need is to be heard.