I recently did a survey of a random set of adults to study the value of social support in times of need. Although the study is not yet complete, of all the people who participated everyone answered the following question in exactly the same way.

Q. What does social support mean to you?
a. Someone listens to you
b. Someone acknowledges your pain and suffering
(more multiple choices)

"Someone listens to you" was always ticked even if there were other or multiple answers possible. I always thought that 'sharing' or 'wanting to be listened' was actually a female thing, but it wasn't. Everyone agreed that the support of others in the form of "listening" was an essential ingredient for success in difficult times. These were all middle-aged to old adults- male and female who had definitely seen at least one very trying time in their lives. One person even stepped out of his comfort zone and talked about how he suffered significantly from taking wrong advice by those who had no understanding about his problems. He recommended going to "wise people" for advice. I am grateful to all of them who so willingly and openly shared their lives and time impromptu for a survey and interview with a total stranger.

Of all types of service I believe the practice of listening is next only to compassion or metta. In listening we acknowledge the pain and suffering of a person, we acknowledge their reality, we respect their being. Most importantly, we make the effort of shifting our own consciousness from "judging" to "understanding"- which is a step towards our own happiness. If we wish to serve but are not willing to listen, we are not serving at all. So many times we offer advice without listening at all- the assumption that we know more and others are incapable or lower in some way is comforting to our egos and so easily donned. The truth is that it's impossible to gauge which battle the other is failing at. I love the hilarious, honest and inspiring TED talk by Ernesto Sirolli- Want to help someone? Shut up and listen! on teaching us the value of listening.

Even though the paths or practices to work our ways out of most challenges may be universal, where everyone is on those paths is different. When to offer a solution and when not or whether to offer any at all depends upon how much we know who the person is and where he or she is. It is like charting out a map of the Himalayas and tracing out where the person is and where we are. Unless we are ahead we really should keep a respectful and humble position. In fact I am now starting to wonder if it is even possible to fully understand another person, their paths or challenges. Brene Brown describes this so well in her popular TED talk on the Power of Vulnerability when she says- "When you ask people about love, they tell you about heartbreak. When you ask people about belonging they tell you about excruciating experiences of being excluded and when you ask people about connection the stories they told me were about disconnection".  How many times have we had conversations with our near and dear ones assuming we know them so well and suddenly found something that totally challenges our understanding of them. In that sense does offering any advice or solution of any kind even make any sense, I wonder. Doesn't just being there and listening offering everything- respecting the battle each is fighting and saluting their courage and warriorness?

Whatever we decide our approach towards this is, if we decide to listen we need to be present - which also means spending enough time with those we care about. I have experienced this personally and don't believe in the neodigital memetics favoring spending quality time vs quantity as enough. Anyone who has done some science and mathematics or child rearing in their lives may understand well that quality and quantity are two distinct and complementary concepts -one not substitutable for another. Spending more time offers more moments and thus more opportunity for observation.