“Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” -David W. Augsburger
Is genuinely listening to other people a dead art? Most people have a conversation based on what they think the other person is going to say next. The time when the other person is talking is a chance for most people to come up with what they are going to say next. We want everyone to think we’re so smart and witty. The worst is when we are caught with nothing to say. So we’re constantly thinking about our side of the conversation. The person we’re talking to is doing the same thing. Which results in a disconnection from what is actually being said.
People listen to reply, not to understand. This happens so often that when someone really hears us and replies thoughtfully to what we just said, it is shocking. And refreshing. And heartwarming. Suddenly, this person who just took the time to listen to what we said is our favorite person. We feel loved and valued. We’re interesting! To have an actual conversation…this is a skill that is all too rare. It’s like love at first sight
What if we could solve all the bad in the world merely by listening to each other? What kind of a beautiful world would it be if everyone felt heard? How many tragedies have happened all around the world because people are frustrated about being ignored? Who can’t relate to being lonely, misunderstood, heartbroken, left out? This may not be the ultimate secret to bring about world peace, but it certainly can’t hurt. How can we practice being better listeners in our families, our work, and our life?
Open Your Mind
Of course, we experience everything from our own perspective. We can’t help but bring our own preconceived notions into our conversations. However, if we are open to the other person’s perspective and allow it to dance around and mingle with our own, perhaps we can enhance our own view of the world. We take a little of their view in, they take a little of ours.
I think we are afraid to allow others in. I think we are afraid the other person’s idea might taint our own somehow. Especially if we don’t agree with the other person because of a strongly held belief. Of course, we can’t help but be influenced by those around us. But isn’t this a beautiful thing? Isn’t letting another person, perhaps someone you don’t agree with, influence you the key to tolerance? Doesn’t a new perspective open your mind to greater possibility? In this way, we realize that we are all the same. You don’t have to submit to their values or buy into their religion, but maybe you could learn something about where they are coming from. You may learn that they are not as bad, or as wonderful, as you thought they were.
Ask thoughtful questions which help to clarify what the person just said. Not only does it clarify things for you, it makes the other person feel heard and understood. Contrary to popular opinion, asking clarifying questions does not make you look dumb, it makes it obvious that you care enough to be clear on what exactly the other person means. You may even end up helping them by allowing them to think through what they are talking about in greater detail. Sometimes having the right question is more important than having the answer.
Making sure you heard them right and understood what they said lets the other person know that you are listening. It also assures that you are clear on they said. Like we said before, we all carry our own perspectives and preconceptions into our conversations. The person speaking has a filter and you have a filter on your end as well. Getting through both is like a game of Telephone. Sometimes what you hear may not be what was intended. Asking clarifying questions allows both of you to understand each other better.
Be sure you are being genuine when asking clarifying questions. Asking, “What exactly did you mean by that?” may be a bit threatening. Try, “I’m not sure I understand what you said. Did you mean…” and repeat what you heard. This ensures what got out of their filter and through your filter is the same message that was intended. Other conversation enhancing questions include, “How interesting! Can you elaborate?” “This experience must have been difficult for you, how did you feel about it?”
If you ask the right questions, you can keep the conversation going without having to say anything and the other person will walk away feeling awesome! Questions are a great awkward silence filler, too.
You don’t need to solve every problem. Just being there to hear the problem sometimes is enough. You aren’t an expert on everything and you don’t have to be. Even if you are the expert, keeping a beginner’s mind is important in making an accurate and mindful diagnosis. Listening closely and asking the right questions is a big part of that. This person’s problem may not be what your first impression is at all. Health practitioners and counselors will do well to keep this in mind.
This is called holding space. To hold space for someone means that you are there to support them energetically. You are in that space, as a comforting presence so they can wander through their subconsciousness safely. A yoga teacher holds space for her class. A counselor does this as well. So does a mother comforting a child. Without saying so, you are telling them that it is okay to let go and speak their truth.
In my training as a health coach, we spent quite a bit of time on this concept of listening for understanding. In fact, there was more emphasis on listening and asking good questions than there was on making recommendations. This is because talking about their problems with another living person is all many people need to begin their healing process. Especially when we take into account the amount of influence emotions and mindset have on physical health. For a client to be heard is sometimes more healing than any solutions I could offer.
If you have a hard time listening to the other person talk without interjecting with your own story, use a tried and true meditation technique. Breathe. Inhale with your diaphragm, feeling your belly expand. Exhale fully through your nose so you’re not obvious (it’s also calming). Of course, you’re still listening and holding space, but if your mind starts wandering, or if what is being said peaks your anger, focus on your breath. This is another good reason for a regular meditation practice. If you are practiced at quieting your mind, this skill will come in handy in conversation.
Don’t Forget About You
Try not to be disappointed when you have just listened to someone’s story for a half an hour and they don’t have time to listen to yours. Find someone in your life who will listen to you. This might be a close friend, spouse, therapist, or coach. It will be very draining to spend your time and energy making others feel heard when you don’t feel heard yourself. Be sure to fill your cup so you have something to give.
Ground yourself before heading into a conversation you know will be difficult. Perhaps the other person has many problems that she will be relieved to share with you. Remember that these are her problems, not yours. Don’t take on other peoples baggage. Your job is to listen, not to deal with the weight. Keep a solid line between what is you and what is other. This is a healthy boundary.
When listening to other people’s perspectives, you may learn something you didn’t know that you didn’t know. Try listening to the story itself rather than your own thoughts about it. Ask questions to be sure you are understanding what they are saying, not what you think they are saying. Just listen without trying to change anything. Breathe, and most importantly, don’t forget about yourself.
If you find this useful, there’s a good chance your friends will, too. Share this with your friends right away while you are thinking of it. Thanks for reading!