Listening First Aid

Gregorio Billikopf

The Panama Canal may serve as an adequate analogy for the role of effective listening skills. As a youth, I traversed the canal several times as we sailed in a freight ship from the port of Valparaiso in Chile, to New York. Massive lock gates are utilized to manage the water levels in the canal, so that ships can move from one direction to another. The water level behind one set of closed locks can be much higher than that of the next compartment through which a ship will travel.

We can compare this scene to the state of mind of an individual suffering from deep emotional wounds, or involved in a serious interpersonal conflict. With disparate water levels there is a buildup of pressure behind the closed locks. If one were to open these lock gates, the flow would be mostly unidirectional. Likewise, a party who is holding in her emotions needs a release. Such an individual is unlikely to (1) think clearly about the challenge or (2) be receptive to outside input from another.

The role of the listener or helper is to allow such an individual to open the lock gates. When he does, the water gushes out. During this venting process, there is still too much pressure for a person to consider other perspectives. Only when the water level has leveled off between the two compartments, does the water begin to flow evenly back and forth. The role of the listener is to help empty the large reservoirs of emotion, anger, stress, frustration and other negative feelings until the individual can see more clearly. Not until then, can a party consider the needs of the other. Perhaps we can think of it as listening first aid.

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