Saturday, 6 August 2011

generous descriptions

Whenever I'm asked what makes a good listener, I often end up talking about generosity.

But today, I want to highlight the generosity of describing well.

And in doing so I'm also trying to modestly offer something to anyone who's in pain; physical or emotional. Listening to Anjelo has helped me deal with pain. And I'd love it to help you too.

Pain can often be a lonely experience. Because as a listener, no matter how much of our own pain we've been through, we can't actually feel someone else's. We can't.

As well-intentioned and as nice as we are, we cannot step inside someone's body and feel what they're feeling. We can't even feel where they're feeling it, never mind the level of it, or how debilitating or even depressing it might be.

So we're destined - all of us - to have from time to time what we'll often call 'indescribable' pain. That migraine or toothache, that torn ligament, or that heartbreak and anguish that hurts us so profoundly, so intensely and it's often made worse by the fact that it feels unshareable.

So on top of our pain, we get loneliness.


That can really hurt.

So, today I'm publishing a podcast of my conversation with a man who managed to share with me (better than most) not just an account of his pain, but his perspective on it.

He's called Anjelo. He's a beautiful man. A gentle man. A sensitive man.

And he's someone whose words and voice have been with me in recent times.

In essence, Anjelo's story is all about pain and about how he understands it. Professionally and personally.

Originally from Sri Lanka and after training as a physio in Australia, Anjelo came to London to train as a pain doctor. (Something he was once told he didn't have the right qualifications for.)

And in London, out of nowhere, he came close to death three times in just a few months.

First, his lung collapsed on a weekend flight to Budapest.

Then, he had a life-threatening operation to repair the damage in his lung.

Then, as he was recovering, while he was watching a World Cup match on TV in his ground floor Victorian flat in Hackney, a fire-bomb was thrown through his open sash window.

And it landed in his lap.

(They got the wrong house by the way. It wasn't meant for him.)

Anjelo's descriptions of what happened and how he dealt with it are extraordinary. Not because they're dramatic and astonishing. But because he takes time to recall - not just for himself, but for me the listener - what actually happened and how he coped with it.

His language is careful and precise. (That's not unusual in itself.)

But what I find rare, powerful and moving is the effect of the energy and commitment he puts into describing his experience. By dedicating himself to sharing his story he creates both a perspective and a presence, at the same time.

He remembers and helps me to imagine.

He pictures and describes.

He wonders and he questions; with me and for me (us) - the listener(s).

And because he describes so generously, he makes of me the listener someone who sees it.

I have my own picture of what happened. You will too if you listen to it.

And I have my own sense of who Anjelo was and now is.

And I have a sense of what he went through on that day and in the subsequent weeks and months.

I often find myself asking people to put more energy into descriptions. I think we're all of us a bit lazy in that way sometimes. And this is such a great example of what can happen if we really invest more than usual in the way we take someone somewhere they've not been to themselves.

The listener can become the viewer.

They can understand so much more richly what that experience might have been like. And as a result they become so much more empathetic. And able to help.

Instead of hijacking a story with their own references like:

"Oh I remember when I fell off a ladder..."


"I'll never forget how much pain I was in when my girlfriend dumped me..."

Instead, we begin to find ourselves genuinely imagining what that must have been like.

For them. Not for us.

And in that moment, we transform ourselves, from merely listening to understanding.

We can check, we can dig deeper, we can wonder with instead of simply gawking at.

We can attend to someone, instead of waiting for them to finish so we can jump in with our own loosely attached story that we've been reminded of.

So - of course generous listening is important.

But generous describing is important too. They're connected. They support each other.

And I want to share Anjelo's story because he's probably the most generous describer I've come across. And by describing well, he enabled me to listen well. In fact I felt compelled to listen well.

So - my hope is that listening to this will encourage anyone who's in pain right now to consider how they share it. Because if we can describe our pain well, I suspect we increase our chances of being heard.

And supported.

And helped.

So - enjoy Anjelo if you feel that way inclined.

You can listen to it here.

(Or via iTunes here.)

Thanks for listening.

And thanks to Anjelo for describing.

P.S. I'm aware that many people don't or can't find time to listen to the podcasts I put out, so I wanted to do something I wouldn't normally do and that's publish the transcript of what he says as well as the audio. I'll do that soon. Watch this space.