Response Art, and the Art of Listening Well

By Liz Maher       March 5th, 2014

As we prepare for the experience of traveling across the globe to sit with strangers, my biggest concern is my ability to be a good listener and witness. Our time together will be brief, so it is essential that when we sit with our Cambodian clients, we are fully present. Training to become Art Therapists, a big focus is on honing the ability to connect empathically to someone else’s experience while managing one’s own emotional reactions. This entails negotiating a balance between the head and the heart, being neither emotionally hijacked to the point of overwhelm, nor clamoring to the safe highground of the intellectual realm, but being able to share in the qualitative experience of the other while maintaining objective neutrality, understanding where one’s experience ends and the other’s begins.

Recently I shared something personal with a friend, and was unhappy about the way my story was received. What upset me was that our interaction felt familiar, a communication pattern often played out between men and women. As I spent a few days processing through art, I realized this is part of a pattern enacted all the time when there is a power imbalance, and realized the high likelihood of it being played out during the course of our work in Cambodia.

When someone in a position of privilege listens to a story told by someone of lesser privilege, there exists a vulnerable power dynamic. The sharer of the story places a great deal of hope in the story as a vessel for being understood. Perhaps the receiver of the story is in a position to effect change on a systemic level. Sharing a story of trauma is inherently re-traumatizing, the sharer of the story is re-living the event under the gaze of another. How that story is received can be the difference between deepening the groove of the trauma pattern, or having a transformative corrective experience.

I will share with you an example of how it might feel when a story is received incorrectly, specifically when it whisked away into the sterile realm of rationality. You have been handed a precious beating heart, something that has been the lived experience of this person for years, and has informed all of their decisions, colored their perceptions, inhabited their dreams and nightmares. Then you take it away from them, take that beating heart out of context. You intellectualize it, explain it, make it manageable. You cut it off from the organism in which it lives, and you kill that beating heart, so it becomes a dry shriveled relic, something to be viewed behind glass, easily understood and digested and forgotten. You fulfill what you view as your moral obligation, and you chose the moment where you get to walk away. This is not listening. It is holding a hot potato and tossing it before you get burned. It is the discomfort with our own feelings around that beating heart that compel us to fold it up into a neat package as quickly as possible. We tend to call something “resolved” when we are ready to put it on a shelf and not deal with it anymore.

Having their experience minimized makes the sharer of the story feel profoundly dismissed and devalued. A verbal response is not always the most appropriate response. Being a witness is what matters. Being seen, heard, and accurately reflected back to is what matters. That is where validation occurs, and where healing can begin. If the receiver begins to work out a solution before the sharer has finished speaking, the sharer feels even more alienated, disconnected, and misunderstood than before. It reinforces the message that this story is not palatable and not to be shared, and that she must bury it and be alone. This furthers the sense of isolation, hopelessness and withdrawal.

Here is some artwork I made around that communication experience.


Earlier this year, I watched the documentary “Half the Sky”, which features incredible women in developing countries who are doing advocacy work for oppressed women and girls. Several vignettes in this documentary were upsetting for what I saw as an offensive degree of cultural insensitivity in the condescending interactions between local women and the visiting celebrities. I’d like to preface the following story by saying that I do not mean to undercut the work that celebrities do when they visit an impoverished country. The celebrities who starred in “Half the Sky” do a tremendous service by bringing media awareness to painful topics that would otherwise be overlooked by Western audiences. To paraphrase a friend’s comment following this fall’s Video Music Awards, “Perhaps we should Photoshop GIFs of Miley Cyrus twerking next to Syria, that being the only way we can get Americans to pay attention to world events.”  It is an unfortunate truth about our particular culture, that we tend to pay attention to international issues only when a beautiful blonde light shines next to it. But I digress.

In this segment of the documentary, Meg Ryan is visiting with young Cambodian girls who have been rescued from brothels. One of the girls asks Meg, “Now that you have heard our stories, how do you feel?” Meg responds, “Stories have such power. When you tell your story, it has dignity, it transforms the experience…” As she speaks, the faces of the little girls glaze over. They have been vulnerable, they have shared their stories of being kidnapped and raped and sold into slavery, and then one girl asked Meg Ryan to be vulnerable and share how she felt. “Has my story made an impact?” is perhaps her underlying question. But instead, Meg Ryan begins to wax poetic about the power of narrative, taking the conversation to the philosophical realm, and far away from the table where she sits with the girls. In doing so, she effectively says “I have not listened with my heart to your story, only with my head.” It would have been much better to answer the question directly and honestly. “Hearing your story, I feel sad. It has touched my heart.”

Empathy is about sharing in the quality of someone’s emotional experience, but not it’s quantity. This evening, I turned to empathy art in attempts to sort out my feelings in regards to someone else’s experience. This week’s class readings have been all about the psychological impact of prostitution and sexual slavery. The case studies have been based on interviews from women working in the sex industry, and reading these accounts, I feel overwhelmed with sadness and hopelessness. I had the good fortune of being born into a world of privilege, so I cannot relate to the external factors of their stories. But what slowed my heart and made my bones heavy was that there is qualitatively something there that I relate to. The women speak about how they feel about their experiences, their PTSD symptoms and the psychological responses and I think, “This feels familiar.” And that connection feels terrifying. From here, I can choose to either fall into a pit of agony and be derailed for the next few hours, or dissociate and allow my feelings to be extinguished and suffocated by compartmentalizing and moving on to the next task.  To stay with that feeling and explore exactly what about it resonates for me, is a difficult but necessary task.

The reason I create empathy art is to put myself in the experience of the other. I set out to depict her story, but furnish it with elements consistent with my own experience, and it becomes a hybrid. That is the amazing thing about art. It translates experience into symbols and metaphors which other people can personally connect to. Being specific and literal makes it hard for someone to enter your experience. Archetypes, however, are big enough to contain everyone’s experience. We all have a personal context from which to understand how it feels to be hurt and betrayed, vulnerable, not in control. Art making is an escape from normal consciousness, and a place to blur the boundaries between individual and universal experience. It is an opportunity to try on someone else’s experience, to feel it in our own skin, and develop more accurate empathy.

I have not been raped by strangers and held in captivity, but I have experienced frightening situations of sexual inequality. I do not share the experience of the women whose stories I have read, but I do share in their anger, pain, and shame.

When I sit with a client, I cannot say, “I know how you feel.” But perhaps I can say, “Here is how hearing your story feels for me.” It is not an interpretation. It is not a solution. It does not take the experience away from the person who has lived it. It is witnessing, reflecting back, and letting the sharer of the story know that she has been seen and heard.

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