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Before there is understanding, there has to be listening. Listening — truly hearing what someone else is saying, is a hard skill to develop.  It means focusing entirely on the other person, without distraction, and putting one’s own views aside — trying not to form questions or arguments while the other person is expressing him or herself. There’s a time for questioning, or trying to get more information, but first, one’s ears have to be open and one’s mouth closed.

Still, there’s a difference between being understanding, and actually understanding a person’s problems or actions. On the one hand, understanding is something like sympathy. You can feel sorry that someone’s in a bad place, or is going through a hard time, but not understand why they did what they did, or approve of their actions. That gets sticky. No one has the right to judge another, but it’s fair to express disagreement. You don’t have to accept another person’s actions, but it is worthwhile to try to understand them and what led them to the place they’re at.

I’ve gone through things with my friends, and with my daughter’s friends. Addiction, date rape, unhappy marriages, painful divorces, miscarriages, death of a loved one, and each requires a different level of understanding. In some cases all you can do is listen — that’s enough. Other times you have to listen for clues or special moments when you can make a suggestion or offer an idea that that might help them. Waiting for the right moment is key to being useful or making a difference in someone else’s life.

People do need understanding, many have a real desire to be heard, and perhaps understood. I know that sometimes I’m reluctant to get involved, maybe I don’t want someone crying on my shoulder, or pulling me into their issues; however, when someone has the faith to confide in me, I can’t ignore their desire — need — to unburden themselves. Sometimes just talking about something — putting the problems or worry into words — helps them find their own solution or comfort.

It’s a gift to give someone your time and a sympathetic ear. You can’t solve other people’s problems for them, but hopefully you can give them understanding.