5 Ways I Listen to Women

I’ve been thinking a lot about listening recently. These two ears have heard some stories, I can tell you! I hear stories of love, trauma, betrayal, bitterness, jealousy, romance, exaltation and secrets that would turn you scarlet.

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As I listen to women, I watch their faces or, if on the phone, listen as hard as I can to the tone of their voices and to what is not being said. I learn so much about how they’re feeling by the hard-to-define facial expressions, body language and the little non-verbal noises they make.

Here are 5 ways I think doulas make a difference by just listening.

1. Make the space and hold it

To enable someone to let go and talk, they need space. Space might mean enough time, enough opportunity, distractions kept to a minimum or to be in the right place emotionally. We need to trust and to feel confident that we will not be judged in order to feel safe to share. We also need our listener to hold this space with the respect it deserves and to honour the sharing in the space you have created.

For some of us, the ingredients need to be just right in order to let go, let it out, let our thoughts, feelings and experiences range free. Keeping it all zipped up can feel like control, and control can become a habit. So showing you are making space, and that you approve of her and whatever she has to say is vital. I try to do this with my body language, my focus on just her and her alone and by helping to make her comfortable. We English doulas often do this by offering and sharing cups of tea – tea and intimate talk, sharing of feelings and working on solutions are intimately intertwined in our culture.

Sometimes touch – hugs, a hand on a shoulder or holding a hand – can be just what a woman needs. Other times, it doesn’t feel appropriate. I think it’s OK to follow our instincts on this one. If all your nerve-endings are open to her signals, you will know if she will welcome your touch.

2 Put away your own ‘stuff’

Because it’s not about you. The other day a new doula asked me if your own memories and experiences ever stop rearing their heads. For me, the answer is yes. My own stories are special, yes, but they have become part of a larger body of narratives floating round in my head and heart. All those stories, all those women; their experiences and voices populate my consciousness. It is them that come to mind as I listen. It is them that inspire me to say, ‘I once knew a woman who…’ or ‘Some women find…’ in order to make a suggestion or to show this mother that she is not alone.

Our ‘stuff’ can be dangerous. It can lead us to make assumptions. It can stop us listening carefully as the clouds of memory and emotion so easily obscure the task at hand. It can make us judgemental. It can stop us really hearing this story and prevents creative problem-solving.

So, we find ways to stow our ‘stuff’. There are many ways and many opportunities to explore the hows and whys of debriefing. We find that it is a journey; that each layer of the onion we peel off reveals more to explore. It’s not about locking up our baggage forever, to ferment and turn rotten in it’s forgotten corner; rather it is about learning how to secure it safely, to lovingly pack away those memories while we hold the space for the women we support.

3. Validate her feelings

Because how else can she feel safe to share or feel good about her unburdening herself if I don’t show her? I work with so many women who tell me that, on top of the worries and concerns they have, they feel guilty, silly or bothersome to feel that way. So many of us need to be told that it is OK to feel this way. That it is entirely understandable that we feel this way. That many, many others feel similar. In fact it’s  hardly surprising we feel like that!

Sometimes, women need to have the emotion named. The feelings can be tumultuous, shapeless and undefined. A timely suggestion that it sounds like she’s feeling angry, resentful or any number of adjectives or even that it must be hard, dealing with all of this, can help. Defining, naming and labelling are ways that human beings cope, control and eventually conquer chaos – be that physical or emotional.

4. Help her find her own answers

All doulas can relate to the story of the woman who talks. And talks. And talks. And we listen. We nod our heads. We smile, we frown at the appropriate moments. We interject with the right noises at the right points. We might ask a few open questions. After quite some time, she will say something like, ‘I think I might…’ or, ‘I could…’. We say: ‘that sounds like a brilliant idea!’ She gathers herself, looks more settled and at home in her body and says, ‘Thanks for that advice, it really helped!’

We have the answers inside us. Sometimes we might need information, people or answers to specific questions as pieces of the jigsaw puzzle – and a doula can help with that. But at the end of the day, only she knows that right answer.

5  Honour our female story-tellers and our oral herstory

Stories are our lifeblood as human beings; especially for women. The oral narrative has been how women have communicated, shared life’s wisdom and lessons, given and received since the dawn of time. Our sex was illiterate until very recently in history. But with the written word came a silence – we stopped telling stories as part of daily life. Our circles are coming back; red tents, storytelling circles and other female rituals and rites of passage mean that perhaps our ancient stories will not be forgotten. Our narratives, be they personal, domestic or about universal wisdom, female power and mystery are vital. It is how we share our strength and step into our inheritance at each stage of our lives – from maiden to mother to crone.

Stories can be used for good or ill. Too often I read stories written by women who use their own experiences to belittle the choices or feelings of others. Our stories can be used by commercial interests to pit us against each other (“we know breastfeeding can be painful, so if you choose to move on, our formula is here to save you”) or to silence us (“All the other mothers are so grateful – just be happy you have a healthy baby”)

We need to nurture our storytelling. Listen carefully for the morals of the tales and use our yarns to knit us together to create something beautiful and useful.


13 thoughts on “5 Ways I Listen to Women”

  1. Hi Maddie, brilliant piece, having started working as a breastfeeding practitioner this really resonates with me and i am definately need to be doing more of this….need to learn to talk less-lol!

  2. Enjoyed that Maddie. I often have to counter the translation of yoga terms which are often described as control of the breath, control of the senses for the ‘zip up’ reason you describe. The word control makes most people feel instantly tense. Refinement of the breath, senses etc is a far better translation than ‘control’ as a reaction to ‘let it all hang out’. Similarly the dualistic ‘keeping it all in’ or ‘over-sharing’ are often considered the only two options in communication. Your detailed description feels like an opportunity for women to emote in a more effective and useful manner. Refinement of expression maybe?

    • Yes I like that phrase! Refinement has many interesting meanings and implications, especially for women….

  3. I really enjoyed reading that piece, after many yes as a RMHN I can fully a test to the power of really listening to a person and not putting our own slant on what’s being said, jumping to conclusions or “rescuing” someone who only wanted to express their thoughts, feelings or desires in a safe non judgemental environment. Trust is such a precious commodity and it is dreadful when it is misplaced or thoughtlessly taken for granted.
    Thank you for reminding us all of that
    Kind Regards Sue x

  4. I understand validating feelings, but if and when those feelings are actually born on illness. How do you validate and suggest that she might need some extra help to think more positively? Validation is powerful I know in cases of PND but how to move on?

    • Hi Melanie, that’s where the real listening comes in. Most of the time people know if they need some help. If we listen long enough they often wonder if they should do x, y or z and usually we can tell them what a good idea that sounds! Sometimes people might need some suggestions – things that have helped others in similar circumstances or they may like ideas of people to talk to for further support. Part of being a doula is understanding our boundaries. Our support isn’t theraputic in the clinical/medical sense, so we need to know when to signpost/refer on. Hope that helps!

  5. Really interesting read …. I understand now how a doula speaking about her own experiences is maybe not as helpful for the expectant mother and maybe more of a hindrrance ….listening ultimately is imperative ♡

  6. Do you know I am coming to the conclusion that this is the biggest aspect of what I do and that people seem to value, holding that space and helping the parents I work with to reflect and explore without judgement or an agenda, present evidence, and sometimes just being there and interested as they work things out.

    I needed to read this today thank you 🙂

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