Sitting in a sound booth with nothing but a microphone, I experienced something I’ve rarely experienced: complete trust and honesty. A few years ago, I helped make an audio documentary exploring the struggles of our university community with issues of marginalization and oppression. Friends, acquaintances, and strangers revealed their stories of being seen as “the other” – including the feelings of confusion, hurt, and disappointment that often came with this. Through this experience, I became an active listener.

Being honest in conversations, especially about life’s struggles, is very difficult because it often strips away the façade that “everything is fine”. It’s hard to admit that you’re struggling. But, as listeners, we try to give people the time and space to talk about what they want to talk about. As I told those I interviewed: “Take your time. I am here for you. I am listening.”

As I spent a week doing these one-on-one conversations, I was moved by the complete trust and honesty my interviewees had in me, someone they barely knew. I found myself in these raw and intimate conversations about the harsh realities of life and how hurtful people can sometimes be to each other. Although I didn’t talk very much, it was the most connected I’d ever felt to other people. When you hear these stories, you start to see each person as they truly are: someone just trying to survive. This honesty would help me years later when the roles were reversed.

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I had been struggling with the fallout from a lost friendship. I felt confused as I grappled with contradictory feelings – swinging wildly from anger to relief to sadness to nostalgia of the good old days. I dissected the relationship in my mind countless times and even talked to my closest friends about what happened. Somehow though, it still felt unprocessed.

I eventually signed up for a Vent Over Tea session. It terrified me. Up to the moment I walked in the café, I was conflicted – I had had negative experiences with people being judgmental, tuning me out, or silencing me. But then I remembered what it was like to be a listener. I also remembered the sense of relief I saw in the faces of those I interviewed after they told me their stories. They were hurting and they opened up to me. Now I was hurting and I had to remind myself that it was safe to tell my own story.

The focus on me and my story felt unnerving but eventually I started to open up to my listener. She was empathetic and understanding and gave me space as I struggled to verbalize and untangle all the complex emotions tied to my situation. While I had talked to friends about this loss of friendship, it was never to this extent, where every emotion was looked at. The situation felt unprocessed because it had been: there were aspects I hadn’t confronted up until that moment.

While Vent Over Tea doesn’t provide counselling, psychotherapy or advice, what it does give is a safe space for complete honesty. Knowing that it’s a safe space to talk, I was able to lay everything on the table and bring out all the emotions attached to what I was going through. Every emotion, no matter how contradictory, was given space to breathe. When that happened, it helped me untangle what sometimes felt like an overwhelming mix of emotions.

When I was a listener, someone once told me: “Thank you, I’ve never verbalized all of that before. Nobody really ever asked.” Years later, as I sat on the other side of the table, I fully realized what he meant.

As a listener, I learned how everyone has their own crosses to bear. We’re all human, we get hurt, we get sad, we struggle, and we survive in our own ways. As a venter, I learned that sometimes what helps lessen the burden is talking to someone who will listen completely when you admit, “I’m hurting. Can I tell you my story?”

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