R U OK? is the paper, listening is the gift

This R U OK Day, Emma Wilkins reflects on the need to not just ask, "are you ok?" but also to answer the question honestly.

A few years back, I set myself the challenge of interviewing twelve of my friends and combining their stories. I was astonished by how much I learnt in the space of one uninterrupted hour.

One friend talked about how trapped she felt during her (planned) pregnancy, another recounted a narrow escape from an abusive relationship, while a third talked about the moment he realised, for the first time, he didn’t actually have to do what adults told him.

The whole experience made me realise how rarely we make time to really listen, even to our friends.

In her book You’re Not Listening: What you’re missing and why it matters, the journalist Kate Murphy says she often gets the sense her interviewees are simply unaccustomed to being listened to. Murphy notes that over the past century, the average time we spend listening to each other has dropped by almost half, while our ability to shut each other out has improved.

R U OK? Day is an annual call to not just cross paths with friends, colleagues, and family, but to “check in” with them too. But in order for it to “work”, we need to invest time in our relationships at other times, too.

The problem is, while we’re used to asking others what they’ve been doing, we’re not used to asking how they’ve been feeling in a way that invites an honest answer. Nor are we in the habit of answering honestly ourselves.

It takes effort and intentionality to spend an evening in conversation with a friend; it’s far easier to relax alone with Netflix and exchange a few likes with whoever’s online. But flippant interactions are no substitute for face-to-face conversation. Even more so if someone’s not okay.­­

Conversations take time, that most finite of resources. This requires that we give, even make, time for others. It may well be that we even need to consider working less.

Why not orient our lives around our relationships if our finances allow it? If a friend or family member is having a rough time, it’s far easier to cook them a meal, mind their kids or take a walk with them if our days aren’t always fully booked.

It’s possible we will have the opportunity to ask “the big question” on R U OK? Day—only to have fear get in the way. What if the person isn’t okay? What if we don’t know what to say? Perhaps it’s safer not to try.

The thing is, we don’t have to have all the answers, or even any answers—we primarily have to care.

Listening well, says Murphy, is about figuring out what’s on someone’s mind and showing we care enough to want to know: “It’s what we all crave; to be understood as a person with thoughts, emotions, and intentions that are unique and valuable and deserving of attention.”

If we still feel apprehensive, we can visit the R U OK? Day website for tips on  how to ask. Or we can resolve to ask someone how their weekend was instead of how they are, with a view to working our way up to more meaningful conversations in time.

The ethos applies to ourselves as much as others. Are there people we can talk to if we find ourselves struggling? If friendships aren’t in place before troubles come—and come they surely will—it will be a whole lot harder to give help, or receive it, because it’s hard to be vulnerable at the best of times, let alone the worst of them.

Perhaps one of the chief ways I can support R U OK? Day is by resolving to take questions about how I’m doing seriously, regardless of the day. When friends ask how I am and the answer’s “not great”, I can practise saying so; when they reach out to offer help, I can accept it. Who knows, perhaps part of what it means to love our neighbours is to humble ourselves, and let our neighbours love us.

Emma Wilkins is a journalist, the author of All My Friends Are Characters, and an associate with the Centre for Public Christianity.

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