Image by Orange_Beard
In my life the times when people have really, deeply, listened to me are precious. I think our relationships, and the world in general, would be better if we were all able to listen to each other. And yet it can be difficult to know how to do it. So this is a quick how-to on listening.
Listening is more about picking up the person’s motives, intentions and feelings than just the facts. When my partner arrives home and relates to me their day of disasters they are not usually looking for tips on time and relationship management to more effectively get through their day. They are probably looking for some sense of emotional connection – me saying something like, “It sounds awful, you must be feeling wrecked, would you like me to get you a cup of coffee”. This is a bit of a trivial example (though if I get it wrong the consequences may not be!). In our everyday relationships we are normally not looking to exchange information (we can all see what the weather is like) but emotional connection. All those ritual exchanges that contain virtually zero information are designed to help us see how the other person is – “where they are coming from” – so that we can know how to relate to them.
Listening involves some signal that we are attending to the other person. This is where paraphrasing the content and agreeing comes in. This lets the other person know that we are paying attention to them.
Going deeper means taking a guess at the feeling or motivation.
This is best phrased tentatively or as an “I statement”, because we can always get it wrong. When my partner arrives home from a bad day it is best to avoid saying, “Oh you look so . . .” because, what if they aren’t feeling that way. What if they are pleased that they have triumphed over all these rotten circumstances and I say they look dreadful. What if I say they must be pleased to have got through such a difficult day when actually they feel close to tears. If we simply ask how someone feels then we will avoid these kinds of tangles. Usually asking someone how they feel is well received.
The other main possibility is to use an “I statement”. Instead of talking about them I report how I would feel. Such as, “After all that I’d want to hit someone.”. This gives the other person the freedom to say, “Oh no, I feel . . .”. They have an opening to say how they feel without having to disagree with me.
These are simple things that can make a huge difference to our relationships. If you practice listening you may be surprised how many friendships you develop.
The farther reaches of listening involve listening to differences and disagreements. This can be challenging, especially when precious beliefs and values are involved.
You can start by listening to someone you know well about something that they are interested in that you aren’t. The mission is to feel the attraction of what they are interested in. When you can feel the attraction of this interest too you know you have listened well. Appreciating our differences can lead to surprising moments of quite genuine and deep intimacy.
One way to know that you have listened is to ask something like, “So, is it like [this] for you?” When you get agreement you know you have listened. Their agreement will usually have an element of relief about it, a feeling of ‘at last someone understands’ (and perhaps moisture around their eyes).
From here the big challenge is to genuinely listen to those we disagree with. I have never found this easy, and I don’t know anyone who does. It does however help us to find ways forward when we need to stay in relationship with these people. Sometimes, by no means always, we can discover that we have misunderstood and there is at least some basis for agreement. These are delightful moments.
A final word about when listening isn’t required. Sometimes we do just want to know the time or what the weather is like outside. If we make the mistake of listening more deeply than the other person wants at the moment (counselors can often fall into this trap) they will usually say something like, “I just want to know what the time is”. And it is unlikely that our listening will be the cause of any problems.
Listening is one of the simplest things we can do for others. And the benefits for our relationships can be huge. I hope, if you would like to try it out, that this gives you some clues about how to go about it.