Afolabi and Faruk are roommates at the university. Afolabi is in his final year and is really
troubled by financial worries. His father has passed on after a road traffic accident and he is the
firstborn. His mother is devastated, and her petty business can hardly sustain the family. He is
worried about his younger siblings and how he needs to graduate soon and hopefully start
earning a salary so he can support his mother and younger siblings. He has been so engrossed in
his sad thoughts that he was unaware that Faruk had been speaking to him…until he came and
tapped his shoulder. He was jolted out of his reverie and asked Faruk what he wanted. Faruk
simply pulled a chair close to his bed and asked him what the matter was. ‘Afolabi, I have been
speaking to you, but you appeared oblivious. I have also noticed that you have been very moody
the past few weeks. I can imagine the pain of your father’s sudden demise must really hurt. How
are you really coping? How are things with your Mum and the rest of the family?’
Afolabi was grateful to have someone who really cared and started pouring out his fears and
concerns. Faruk listened patiently and encouraged him that they were almost out of school. He
was happy to share his food and pocket money with Afolabi. Faruk reassured him that all his
friends had been worried about him and were willing to support and be there for him. They just
didn’t know how to broach the topic since he was so withdrawn and kept to himself. Afolabi felt
a huge sense of relief as these were thoughts, he couldn’t share with his Mum or siblings in order
not to make them feel bad. He was grateful to Faruk and his friends and already felt lighter and
more optimistic about the future after pouring his heart out.
African folklore in various oral traditions emphasizes the importance of listening and paying
attention when someone is speaking. We frequently rebuke children to look at us, establish eye
contact, and listen when we are speaking to them. This is grounded in evidence-based science
which supports the improvement and sustenance of attention and concentration when you are
looking at the person and making eye contact.
What is active listening?
Listening is one of the loudest forms of kindness you can extend to someone. Hearing is different
from listening. You can passively hear what someone is saying but you may not be paying
attention and actively listening to understand what they are saying and why they are saying it.
Even more important is to also listen to what is possibly been left unsaid.
Imagine trying to talk to someone while they are busy arranging their room, checking their
emails, or watching the tv and generally ignoring you. It will seem like a futile effort that may
discourage you from speaking any further. In the words of L.J. Isham, “Listening is an attitude of
the heart; a genuine desire to be with another, which both attracts and heals”.
Healing benefits of listening
When you listen to people, the first thing you do is make them feel heard and listened to; a sense
of being valued and respected. Cheryl Richardson expressed this eloquently, by encouraging us
to simply “Listen, people, start to heal, the moment they feel heard.” This is one very simple
strategy that goes a long way in therapy, simply listening and allowing people to ventilate in a
safe space that is non-judgemental is very soothing and is the beginning of healing. In fact, in
some instances, that is all that may be required. In the story of Afolabi above, simply having
Faruk show concern and listen to him gave him an instant sense of relief.
Furthermore, human beings are emotional animals with feelings that can be hurt, comforted, or
encouraged depending on the circumstances. Thus, it is important to pay attention to the
emotional undertones of the words we are hearing. Bob Chapman captured this succinctly by
stating: “the art of listening is not to hear what someone says, but to hear how they feel”.
Many of us simply feel helpless and wonder if it is worth the trouble when we are not trained
mental health professionals, life coaches, or counselors. But all you need is simply to possess
two ears and a genuine heart that cares about the person. It is instructive to close with the words
of encouragement from Leo Buscaglia, who stated: “Too often we underestimate the power of a
touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring,
all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” We can all do something and help someone
by paying attention and listening to them. You don’t need to have answers…just simply be there.
Dr Jibril Abdulmalik
Tribune Article for the column “Your Mental Health & You”
Thursday, 23rd March 2023