Resident adviser training consists primarily of a series of workshops covering important skills, including mental health awareness, incident documentation, and friendship. These workshops often bleed together into a whirlwind 72 hours of icebreakers and PowerPoints. Looking back on my first training, it takes a fair amount of effort to extract the bits of information remaining in my friendly, advice-giving brain about the one-hour workshop on listening.
Most of training is designed only to make new resident advisers feel a little prepared for the task they are about to undertake; returning RAs know that the illusion of preparation is 90 percent of the battle. That one-hour workshop may have made me feel like I knew what listening was, but only two years as a John Jay RA could even begin to enlighten me.
The most important thing to realize about listening is that active listening is not just one thing. In training, we learn how to at least pretend to be listening: Nod along, don’t contribute with stories about yourself, validate the person’s concerns; the list goes on, but not far. The active listening workshops boil down to one helpful but narrow guideline: Don’t listen with the intent of speaking. This is a good starting point, but in reality, the art of active listening is a lot more nuanced.
If you want to play the part of the listener, first learn how to ask what’s wrong. In my experience as an RA, it’s rare for a resident who is in need of help to just come forward and ask to unload their problems onto me. My job as an RA is making it clear that that is exactly what I am there for. The trick to doing this is asking how people are and what they are thinking earnestly and frequently. Once someone knows you only want to help, it’s much easier for them to open up.
Another key skill to have as a listener is being able to not mention or even think of yourself for a prolonged amount of time. I’m talking hours. This sounds easy, but next time you talk about your problems to a friend keep track of how often they bring their own experience or opinion into the mix. Sometimes intrusion can be a good thing, but often it’s not. Leave yourself out of the equation for a hot second.
When you put these things together, you get an overarching theme—take social cues. This is not at all counterintuitive or groundbreaking, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need a reminder to pay attention once in a while. Pay attention to what other people are doing—when to listen, when to touch, and when to leave the room can all be discerned just by letting go of your own thoughts and focusing on someone else’s. When you’re listening to someone’s problems, the best thing you can do is adjust your style to the flow of their emotions. The most important thing to look for in a person is the shift from when they are just venting to when they are open to solving their problem. If you offer advice or resources too early, you’ll get shut out; if you wait too long, you’ll be totally unhelpful.
However, while all these things are skills that great listeners have, these qualities do not a great listener make. Great listeners know when to reach out for themselves. They have their own support networks, and they know how to utilize them. Admitting to another person that you need help is the first and most difficult step, and being able to do that is the only way to make yourself available to others as well.
It may seem overly trite to say that to listen to others, you have to listen to yourself, but I mean it. If I ignored all of my own little internal cries for help—forgetting a meeting, lying awake all night, skipping meals—I would shatter. Instead, I ask others to listen to me. And when the time comes, I can be there for them.
Rachel Chung, SEAS ’15, is majoring in applied mathematics. She is an opinion blogger for Spectrum. To see other pieces from this Scope, click here.
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