Providing a safe listening space: No FRAPTing


A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to belong to a men’s listening group for a year. The thought of sitting with my vulnerability exposed in circle with men was rather daunting. I know that the male species doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to listening well. The typical middle class example would be of hubby sitting with his feet up watching the game (remote in hand) and his dearly beloved talking and sharing desperately vying for his attention. All appears to be going well until she says: “You haven’t heard a word I’ve just said” or “What did I just say?” Multitasking isn’t one of our particular male strengths. But what about times when the TV isn’t on, the laptop is stowed away and the phone is on charge downstairs and we find ourselves sitting face-to-face and really conversing? Well, males, I’ve found have a tendency to FRAPT in conversations which creates an unsafe listening space or ‘holding environment’ as the Psychodynamic therapists refer to it. Our first orientation class at the men’s listening group was all about setting boundaries to create a safe space. The facilitator flipped open his chart and wrote in large, bold capitals ‘FRAPT’. He was of the opinion that if we could refrain from FRAPTing that the space would be a safe container for our emotions. As you can well imagine we were revving and the idea of opening up and sharing our deepest, darkest was a riveting one. Mmm, in all honesty, not so much. Okay, so onto the acronym FRAPT … Each letter represents something that a listener ought not to do when listening and by refraining from doing so the listener will be providing a safe space in which the speaker (the person who’s sharing) can feel safe and ‘held’ so to speak. Let’s explore each letter of the acronym in more detail. F is for Fixing When sharing happens, and this is a rare, sacred moment, there ought not to be fixing. How inclined we are to reach into our neat little tool box and start fixing when people open up and share something raw. We put on our Bob the builder cap and engage in some fixing, plumbing, plastering, fastening, unscrewing etc. We might be thinking, with the best possible intention, that we’re trying to help, but our ‘helping’ might, in fact, be hurting. When someone engages in gut-level sharing they’re not asking to be fixed. They’re not seeking solutions. They might need our empathy first. They might just need to be listened to first. If we’re really hooked onto fixing we might need to wait until we hear the magic words: “Could you perhaps help me with this?” Until then we’re not to engage in fixing of any kind. Attempts at fixing might cause the person to withdraw and feel less confident about broaching the topic or approaching you with their struggles. R is for Rescuing The Marvel heroes: The Black Widow, The Falcon, Captain America etc. are into rescuing. They appear in the nick of time to save the day. People cheer as they see their heroes saving the day, but not so in listening. In our sincere attempts to help people we engage in superhero play, we fly in, use our powers and rescue them from impending doom. On the surface it might seem like something praiseworthy, even noble, to do, but there’s something deeply disempowering about rescuing someone else. Maybe it’s not the appropriate time to intervene. Maybe the person doesn’t need your saving. They might perhaps just need a listening ear. It might even be embarrassing or humiliating for them when you choose to step in and in all sincerity wreck the place. A colleague might be sharing about their draconian manager and their shaming tactics and you, noble as you are, attempt to put the boss-man or boss-woman in their place or try to break someone’s neck who messes with your friend or dear colleague. In listening well we need to resist the urge to jump in and rescue. The call is rather to be present, to listen empathically without judgement and mostly without wanting to jump in and rescue them from their suffering or pain. Listening well is about allowing the speaker to lead you, not the other way ‘round. A is for Advising “You know, I was in exactly the same position last year and all I did was … you should really just … it’s simply just …” In our well-meaning attempts to help we might again be wreaking havoc in someone’s inner world by opting out of real listening and jumping the gun by indulging in a bit of advice. “Let me share what worked for me …” Creating safe space for someone else is not about being the fount of all knowledge. Chances are pretty slim that someone started opening up to you because they were after your pearls of wisdom. People may in fact just need an ear, a presence or someone who can be present to them in their pain. Please refrain from advising others in deep listening spaces. It might be hard, but it’s a matter of respecting the dignity of the other person and trusting that they already possess the necessary knowledge to ‘solve’ their own problems without your advice. They’re the experts on their own lives. As good listeners we can help them tap their own inner wisdom, resources and knowledge. P is for Projecting “I know exactly what you mean. It must be horrible.” In truth we don’t and can’t ever fully know what people mean or what it’s like for them to suffer in the ways they do. We often have a tendency to project our own bad experience of something or someone onto the person speaking and might think we know exactly how they’re feeling. We all project onto others and onto the world. We have our own bag of sorrows which has coloured the lenses through which we view the world. In refraining from projecting our experience onto others we ask clarifying questions to hear from them how they might experience something and what it’s like for them. A young man went to stay at a monastery for week in solitude and silence. After the experience when people heard about it they said things like: “you must’ve been climbing the walls after the first day” or “it must’ve been torture” all to which he replied: “I was in heaven, it was absolute bliss.” This retelling is merely an old introvert vs extravert folktale. We have different preferences and experiences of the same phenomena. In listening well we try to establish what a particular experience is like for the other individual without projecting our likes and dislikes onto it. We’re trying to put, and keep, our projections on pause while listening well. T is for Telling “This is what you should do … walk up straight to him, look him in the eye and say …” or “What you should’ve done was …” We tell other people what to do because we’re simply trying to be nice or are trying to help. Telling others what to do might, like mentioned before, be disempowering them. Listening respectfully is about refraining from telling other people what to do and how to do it. Listening is non-prescriptive. We don’t listen in order to answer; we listen to listen (listening for its own sake). It might even come off as disrespectful when we’re trying to tell someone else what to do. Again, listening well is about being present, without advising or telling, but rather facilitating the conversation for the other person to discover the depths of their own wisdom derived from their lived experience. We create safe space for others within which they can be vulnerable and free to express their feelings, struggles and suffering without fear that we would defile the sacred with our unhelpful attempts fixing, rescuing, advising, projecting and telling. By refraining from FRAPTing we are in a way removing the shoes from our feet and respectfully stand with others in their pain on holy ground.

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