When your job is to listen – not to fix

Hester Wilson

16/10/2019 1:26:15 PM

When a young acquaintance asked to meet in a park, Dr Hester Wilson was surprised. But there was a reason.

Park bench
A park bench was where one young man decided to change.

The 20-year-old son of an acquaintance recently made contact with me through social media.
I was surprised, as I didn’t know him or his family very well. But I sensed there was a reason the young man I’ll call Jonno approached me this way.
I agreed to meet him in the local park. We sat on a bench, watching dogs chase balls. 
After a moment, Jonno started talking. He said he didn’t know where to go or what to do.
‘Like, you wouldn’t go to a doctor for this, would you?’ he asked.
As his story came tumbling out, I looked around, wondering if this was the best place for the conversation. But there was no stopping him. Once he started unburdening himself, he couldn’t stop.
It was drugs – a recreational habit that had turned serious. Alcohol, party drugs, cannabis, cocaine (not much, as that was too expensive), GHB and pharmaceuticals, all taken during sessions running from Friday to Sunday, every week.
As he spoke, I swallowed my qualms. His use seemed so risky, I felt I had to help now that he was asking for it.
But how to help? That was the question.
Several times I had to stop myself from commenting about risk and the need to change. It was hard not to weigh in. But I knew from experience that this desire to fix can actually do the opposite.
I took a deep breath and instead let him know that I would keep our conversation private unless I was seriously concerned for his immediate safety.
For Jonno, the drugs were just fun – something he did with his mates. It was fine, wasn’t it? That was until last weekend, when his ex-girlfriend and one of his oldest friends had called him up separately to let him know they were worried about him.
I sat quietly while he explained the situation. Then I asked him what he wanted to do.
‘I want to stop,’ he said. ‘I know this is not good for me. I feel really down for a few days afterwards.’ 
‘What is your plan?’ I asked.
And then – right there on the park bench – Jonno came up with his own plan. I didn’t have to say anything, just nod. At the end, I asked if he thought the plan was achievable.
He paused at that, and then asked if he could come to see me in my rooms the following week.

Jonno arrived at my practice as planned. He’d booked the appointment online on his way home from the park.
He hadn’t used at all that week. He was feeling great about the change he’d made. 
Once again, I needed to say very little as he created his own plan for the next few weeks, down to identifying high-risk times and ways to manage these situations.
Jonno came in a few more times after that. We went through the same process.
And it worked – he changed what he wanted to change. 
Of course, there were a few slip-ups, but he used those times to think about how he needed to do things differently.
Jonno started spending more time with friends who weren’t using drugs and found himself enjoying their company. Work started to become more pleasant. And the pile of unfinished assignments for his part-time uni course started getting done.
It’s now six months after our first conversation in the park, and Jonno isn’t using any illicit drugs. He tells me he does still drink a little alcohol, but only after a game of footy.
For me, the whole episode was remarkable for the fact that I did very little. At the end of our time together, I asked him why he’d sought me out – and whether seeing me had actually helped.
Jonno smiled.
‘I thought you looked kind. You really helped me to think through what I wanted to change,’ he said. ‘Plus, seeing you a few times kept me on track as I knew I’d have to tell you if I made a blunder.
‘You didn’t judge me, and I am so grateful.’
It was lovely to hear that, but I did still wonder what role I played. Looking back, I guess I created a safe space for him to think through what he wanted while he used his own innate skills to find solutions that worked for him. My role was simply to sit and listen.  
A very wise adolescent psychiatrist once told me that for young people who have a stormy time in adolescence, sometimes you just have to hang in there with them while they grow up. 
I guess Jonno grew up.

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Dr Jeremy Cahill   17/10/2019 7:55:10 AM

This wonderful tale resonates with my learning and experiences over the years, whilst also acknowledging I’m not always a good listener.
I am reminded of the gem I read in my early days in a “recommended to GPs” paperback. The book’s title continues to elude me, but the chapter heading not.
“ Don’t just do something , sit there”.

Dr Nazareena Essop Ebrahim   17/10/2019 3:19:53 PM

Wow. Great lesson there. Seek to understand....

Dr Allan Michael Fasher   17/10/2019 5:06:02 PM

Powerful story Hester - thank you for sharing
You reminded me that in 1999 I wrote, "The requirement to understand predicaments is not a requirement to solve ..."

Dr Kylie Fardell   18/10/2019 3:21:37 PM

Thanks for sharing this wonderful lesson.