I hear you
How I learned to listen in grad school
ME: “…I don’t want to talk about plans. Working inside the lab building feels depressing.”
MOM: “Maybe you can talk to the department chair about finding a new advisor? That shouldn’t be difficult.”
ME: “Mom, could you stop telling me what to do? I feel really overwhelmed right now”
MOM: “I’m not telling you what to do. We all love Prof Winston and it’s devastating that he passed, but you will get stronger through this. Just be positive and …”
ME: “Mom, I can’t continue this conversation. I need to go now.”
Hanging up on that call, I had the most desperate cry since the sudden passing of my then research advisor at MIT. On top of the crushing grief of losing my mentor and my dream, I felt ashamed that I couldn’t handle what my mom thought I should do, heartbroken that she didn’t seem to care about how I was feeling, and lonely that I had no one to lean on in this darkest storm. All I needed was the simplest assurance from her, “It’s ok. I hear you, and I still love you.”
I can’t imagine going through the challenges at the beginning of my PhD without the emotional support I received from mentors and friends. While some conversations left me feeling frustrated and lonely, there were many others that relaxed me and cheered me up. How can I provide “good listening” to people around me? I set out to find out.
REFS training taught me to Listen to Understand
During orientation, I was immediately drawn to a student association called REFS (Resources for Easing Friction and Stress), a group of graduate students trained as confidential peer mediators who serve as a first point of contact in dealing with stress. I joined the group because I want to help peers like me.
Reading the books suggested during my REFS training, I thought I had grasped the keys to being a good listener — being empathetic, non-judgemental, and helpful. It wasn’t until the role-playing exercises that I realized how challenging and unintuitive listening was for me. I found myself easily jumping to conclusions and eagerly sharing my “brilliant” advice:
ME: “Ok, I heard that you want to submit your master thesis in May and accept the offer to a prestigious internship this summer, but your PI wants you to work on it more over the summer. Maybe you can work on them at the same time. I know of grad students who work part-time on other projects during their internship.”
Student: “but I can’t submit my thesis at the end of summer if I’m not registered for the summer.”
ME: “I see, how about…”
You see, early in the conversation, I had little knowledge about the situation. I would make assumptions about the kind of people the PI and the student are, their relationship, the source of stress, and what would make the student happier after the chat — and the student may not be clear about the answer to that question either! After eliciting more information from the student, we might even realize that the student’s main frustration was the constant high expectations from the PI and they needed the internship for restoring their mental health.
So I learned to reposition myself as someone who helps students understand their needs, constraints, and plans by asking questions. In this way, they feel supported and they would usually come up with the most appropriate solutions themselves. I also feel less stressed in those conversations. Instead of presenting myself as an expert in all sorts of conflicts and stressful situations, I play the role of a curious thinking partner. In the end, if the student and I think we’ve gathered a good amount of information and they are curious to know how I would act in that situation, I could share my ideas, which are more informed and easier to take in.
Relationship conflicts taught me to Validate Even When You Disagree
I learned the importance of validating opposing positions from a failed intercultural romantic relationship. My ex-boyfriend and I often felt misunderstood by each other, and our conversation would end up in both of us ranting about emotions and listing opinions without ever acknowledging what the other had said.
Among the many reasons that broke the relationship was my inability to listen when I was emotional. I regret that I felt entitled to not consider his reasoning carefully before responding because “he wasn’t listening to me!” Regardless of whether I end up agreeing with his points, he deserved my patience and attempts to understand him. I should have reminded myself that he has good intentions, as well as different ways to observe and interpret things. I should have simply said, “I see. Thank you for telling me. Now I know it is natural you feel/think that way, because … Do you have any more to add?” before offering “Do you want to know how I felt/thought?”
I realized listening is harder for me in close relationships than in REFS consultation because I have a stronger urge to express myself and a lower filter to monitor my quick response. When a friend complains that they are fat, stupid, or incapable, I could burst out in disagreement, saying, “No you’re not,” and start teaching them about positive thinking. But I now choose to slow down and follow their reasoning instead of preaching mine, “I see. No wonder you feel this way. You have always been doing well before this past period. That failure to meet your own high expectations must have added a lot of stress to your already busy life.” No downplay, no cliches, and not making it about me until I’ve validated others’ points of view.
Close friendships taught me that Being Genuine is Key
I am glad to have become a more skilled listener over the past two years. Still, sometimes I struggled to find the perfect response in various uncommon situations. So I tried to pay attention to what others have said that made me feel heard. Once, a friend said “uhh, that sucks” and walked with me in silence. Another time, a friend said “it’s ok” and patted my back. With the comforting validation and intentional pause, I was able to add more and open up about my deep feelings.
Initially I thought I had picked up the magical words to say, but soon I realized what actually worked was my friends’ full presence and genuine care for me that were reflected from their simple response. They were there for me and they cared enough to hear more. I also appreciated their attentive gaze and gentle touch, which expressed as much warmth as their words did.
This is what I learned so far about listening–listen to understand, to validate, and to show that I care. I have been rewarded with a deeper understanding and appreciation of people around me. And I believe by offering good listening to friends at grad school, we would together build a healthier and happier MIT.
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