Bearing Witness to Ease Suffering
In times of great personal and community suffering, we can ease others’ pain through listening, through bearing witness to their experience. We encounter others’ distress through social media, but we also encounter it at work as we hear stories of our colleagues going through hard times. This blog was motivated by my personal encounters of suffering this week including stories of war, the continued pandemic suffering, and the death of a dear friend’s mother. I was also inspired by a conversation with a client who provides palliative care. Sometimes the pain around us gets to be so much we are at a loss of what to do. In these times we can remember the power of bearing witness, of validating the existence of something simply by being present.
My client Dr. Cheng provides palliative care to patients at UCSF’s Cancer Center. In preparing to speak on the topic of palliative care and integrative medicine, Dr. Cheng commented, “Palliative care welcomes grief into the room and allows it. Given the times – pandemic and war – we need to let grief and pain in the room.” I asked how we actually do that and the response was, “Inviting people to share whatever they are experiencing and bearing witness and deep listening and letting go of other agendas. As you and I know, the caregiver and facilitator need to first do that for themselves.”
What a powerful reminder.
Inviting People to Share
Asking open-ended questions is the best way to invite people to share. These questions allow for expression of whatever is occurring for the person at the time. We make room for what arises by being open to anything people choose to say. Open ended questions often start with the word ‘what’ as these examples below show.
- What would be most helpful for you to share about your experience?
- What is most present for you at this moment?
- What are you experiencing right now?
- What was that like for you?
Bearing Witness with Deep Listening
Verifying that something exists can be done through deep listening. Listening is a gift and can be demonstrated by being fully present, setting intentions, and giving appropriate cues. We can intend to hear everything others are expressing with voice and body and we can avoid thinking of other things while they speak. If we start to plan our response while someone is speaking, we can just acknowledge but not follow that train of thought and return to deep listening. The nonverbal listening cues of head tilting and nodding help the speaker feel heard and are likely to come naturally when we are listening deeply.
Letting Go of Other Agendas
When we are being mindful, we might notice that we actually have something we want out of supporting others. We might want them to perceive us as being helpful. We might want to make things better by offering our hard-earned advice. We want might to demonstrate that we understand by sharing an experience of our own. These are our agendas. It is instinctive to have agendas, but when we are bearing witness, our agendas are not helpful. We can let go of our agendas by naming them in our heads as they arise and then visualizing them passing on, like a leaf floating down a river. We can focus entirely on bearing witness. The kindness of letting go of our agendas gives more space for others, more room for grief to be present.
Building Our Strength First
Bearing witness is emotional work. It might sound simple through the steps just outlined, but simple is not easy. We feel others’ pain when we hear their stories. To be in a place to offer this deep listening, we need to first take care of ourselves. That means making space for our own pain or grief and listening to ourselves without any self-criticism about how things ‘should’ be at any given time.
We all encounter others’ suffering on a regular basis at work, in our personal lives, and through world news in various forms of media. While we don’t have the power to stop war or solve a colleague’s woes, we do have the power to bear witness to others’ experience and, being resolutely present, ease the pain.