Maybe one of the more painful, or even frightening things, is when we are unable to get another person—especially one we love—to hear and understand us. The person listening doesn’t necessarily even need to agree with us—if only they would listen and understand our experience. Can you hear me? Is that too much to ask?
No, it’s not too much to ask, yet it’s a need we have that too often goes unfulfilled. And our need to be heard is one of our most basic needs. It begins well before we are able to verbalize ourselves, so this need isn’t always about being heard, which is why I prefer to talk about it as a need to be witnessed. Sometimes that may be verbal; sometimes it may not involve words at all.
One of my most powerful memories of being witnessed was after my mother died. I was home alone when I received a call from my sister. The call wasn’t unexpected. We talked for a few minutes and then I called my best friend and when he answered the phone I burst into tears. He didn’t say anything; actually he started crying too. He was present with me, not anxious, not worried, not trying to make the situation better. He said nothing reassuring, but he accompanied me as I felt and expressed my grief.
Why witnessing helps
When we are witnessed our nervous systems calm down. Why? Because when we are witnessed we don’t feel so alone, we feel connected. And as social animals feeling connected is crucial for our sense of well-being. Some people connect in other ways, by arguing and quibbling, but that doesn’t calm their nervous systems.
We have no training in how to witness
As important as it is to know how to witness, we have no training. No one ever taught us how to do this. No one ever taught our parents. So most of us go through life feeling deprived or fighting to be heard—or both.
Here’s the irony
It’s easy. It’s actually easy to witness another person when we realize that we don’t have to do anything. We don’t have to fix them. We don’t even have to make them feel better. What’s required is our presence. To be present with another human being while they show themselves is grounding—and too rare an experience.
We can do this for ourselves
Not only is there great value in learning how to witness other people, there is equal value in learning how to witness ourselves. When we feel conflicted or anxious, it’s often the result of not taking the time to witness some aspect of ourselves, a feeling we have that we deny, or a belief that has gone unacknowledged because we think it’s a ‘bad’ belief.
I have spent many years denying a feeling that was left over from when I was a child. The feeling came up when I saw pictures of myself as a very young child, I didn’t like what I saw. I was cute enough, I guess, but I didn’t like to be reminded of how I felt as a child, because much of the time I felt scared. Not all that long ago I was exploring a therapeutic technique that helps us get in touch with how we feel. It’s a non-verbal breathing technique that involves listening to ourselves and being present. As I practiced this technique I found myself witnessing the young boy from my past and something profound happened. I went past my judgments and for the first time in my life I recognized this part of myself as a sweet boy.
A few months later Hannah and I were conducting one of our retreats, and in our retreats all the participants take on a name other than their real name. This is a very powerful focusing device. So I took on the name “Sweet Boy.” After I had witnessed this part of myself I was ready to allow other people to see this part of me. All week long when people wanted to get my attention they would call out to me, “Hey, sweet boy . . . “ The experience was fun, healing, and transformative—and it all began with me taking a few minutes to witness myself.
So many of us wanted something that we didn’t get from our parents—a healthy emotional connection. We wanted to be witnessed, but they didn’t know how to do that. Well, here’s the thing, as adults, we can give that to ourselves, as I just illustrated. And I recently worked with a client who said, “There is a part of me that has lived my whole life wanting my mother to look at me. ‘Look at me,’ this part says, ’LOOK at ME.’ My mother never looked at this part of me, but now I can do that for this part of myself. I can look at her, love her, sit with her, hold her, comfort her and witness her. That’s all I have to do.”
The first key to witnessing
There are two keys involved in learning how to become a good witness, for ourselves and for others. The first key is learning to use language more consciously. This happens when we learn to use Perception Language. As we change the way we speak we will also change the way we listen.
Using Perception Language makes it easier to witness other people, because with Perception Language we don’t tell people about them, judge them, or even reflect back what we’ve heard. So we’re much better listeners. And when we express ourselves using Perception Language, it’s easier for other people to witness us because we make it clear that we’re talking about ourselves, our unique experiences. We don’t use generalizations or judgments, which a listener may often react to.
For example, when Hannah used to tell me that my behavior—flirting—caused her to be anxious, I wasn’t very good at witnessing her because I immediately became defensive. After learning to use Perception Language, she still had the same feelings if she observed me flirting, but when she spoke to me about it she did so without accusing me of being the one who made her feel the way she felt. Therefore, I was able to listen, to understand her experience, to imagine how hard it was for her. She calmed down because she felt witnessed. I ended up changing my behavior because I realized how my behavior was painful for her.
The second key to witnessing
The second key to witnessing is learning how to listen from each one of the three degrees of consciousness. If you aren’t familiar with these, refer to my previous article. A quick reminder—the three degrees of consciousness include: safety consciousness, heart consciousness, and spacious consciousness.
Most of our conflicts and tensions arise when we are in safety consciousness. When two people are both in safety consciousness—which often involves trying to be right, blaming someone for how we feel, or getting someone to make us feel better— it’s just about impossible to witness one another.
Now, let’s say you’re in safety consciousness and you feel a need to be witnessed by me—probably because you don’t feel totally safe. That’s your need, not mine. I don’t need to engage with you at the level of safety consciousness; the best thing I can do is shift to heart consciousness and I’ll be far more available to witness you—or witness some part of myself that is stuck in safety consciousness.
Heart consciousness makes it easy to witness
I can witness you much better when I’m in heart consciousness because I feel myself as a separate person from you. This means that I’m more available to listen without reacting. What you are saying is about you, not me.
I think that many people confuse themselves about heart consciousness and how it works. It’s not about merging and becoming one. It’s about recognizing two things.
- I am separate from you.
- I have love within me that is mine; I’m not dependent upon another person in order to experience love.
In other words, when I fill myself with love—for life—my heart expands, allowing me to relate with other people from a state of fullness, not a state of neediness.
We all need to be witnessed. And we will dramatically improve the quality and satisfaction in our relationships when we learn to witness other people and they learn to witness us. We will also improve many of the world’s problems if we all learn to witness one another. If you didn’t hear President Obama’s commencement speech at Howard University, he spoke eloquently about this very thing—the need to learn to listen, even to people with whom we disagree.
And one of the most loving things we can do for ourselves is to learn to witness ourselves.
So, the two keys to this are, first, learning to use language in a conscious manner (Perception Language), and second, learning to access heart consciousness.
For those people who have struggled, either not knowing how to witness yourself or others, and those who have not felt adequately witnessed, the struggle goes away when we shift from safety consciousness to heart consciousness. This is a skill, a practice that serves us in a multitude of ways. I strongly encourage you to learn to access all three degrees of consciousness.
We are teaching these skills in our retreats and we invite you to apply if you want to be witnessed, learn how to witness, and experience more love in your life.
And to learn more about the three degrees of consciousness you can download the article by filling in the form below: