Five Steps to More Compassionate Listening

I’m feeling so grateful to my growing Twitter community these days–they are a font of inspiration. After reading my posts on “When ‘Helpful’ Isn’t,” @janaejl1 suggested a “how-to” list for good listening. I loved that idea, so here is my stab at it!

What Goes Wrong With Listening

First, let me explore my hypothesis on why we need a “how-to” list to begin with. I think that, as a culture, we get a “D” for our listening skills. I believe that this is particularly true when someone is discussing a painful subject. While there are many complicated reasons that people may not listen well, I think that all of the reasons tend to fall within two umbrellas:

1. Being overwhelmed. Sometimes a failure to listen reflects the tremendous pressure placed on us and on our time by our “try-to-do-it-all” lives. If your brain is on whether or not you turned on the crock-pot, filed that report properly AND paid the mortgage–you might not tune in enough to listen well. If you’re struggling with your own stress or loss, you may not have the emotional energy to extend to someone else in pain. Most of us are coping with some degree of feeling overwhelmed.

2. Being too emotionally close. If you care about someone (a family member, friend, partner, etc), it can be intensely difficult to watch them feel pain. For most of us, our reflex reaction to a loved one in pain is to try to alleviate the pain. Unfortunately, this may not include creating space to allow the feeling.

These two umbrellas of listening interference are universal. Sometimes all of us are too overwhelmed to listen well. Sometimes we are simply too close to make space to hear someone’s pain. These realities are part of why we need therapy as a support option. However, even if you are overwhelmed or emotionally close, there are still some basic steps you can take to be a more compassionate, engaged listener.

How to Do It Right

1. Listen. This may seem like a tongue-in-cheek point, but I’m very serious about it. Try an experiment for me. The next time you’re in a group, just hang back and try to follow the conversations around you. How often do you see someone who is able to fully describe their feelings or experiences without being interrupted? My guess is: not often. Most of the time, in an effort to convey support, we jump in–with an interpretation, a comparison, or a consolation. While the intent may be be good, the result is that we don’t actually make space to listen to one another. Try to make enough space for someone to fully express themselves.

2. Don’t project. I think that this is a common mistake that we’ve all made. In an effort to show that we “get it,” we compare our own experiences to the person we’re listening to. We look for ways to show them that we understand because we’ve had a similar experience. The problem with this is that we often make this leap without actually hearing the person’s experience (back to step one). As a result, instead of feeling heard, they feel shut down and invalidated.

3. Validate. I know, this is kind of psychologist jargon. Let me explain what I mean. When we validate someone, we respect that they are having a unique personal experience. We respect that they (not us) are the expert on their experience. We respect that their experience may be different in duration or frequency than our similar experience. Basically, we show, through our words and actions that it is acceptable for them to have any feelings that they are having–they don’t need to “clean them up” or “make them socially acceptable.”

4. Demonstrate compassion. I think that this step trips some people up. When we are faced with someone in huge pain, our words feel inadequate. That’s because, often, words ARE inadequate. So, instead of trying to find the “right” words, a clear, simple expression of compassion is the most useful. That can be, “I’m sorry that you’re feeling so sad today.” Or it could be, “It makes sense that you feel so overwhelmed by this.” (And now, some readers are saying, “But I want to HELP!” Hang in there–step five is coming.)

5. Ask what is needed. One of the classic blunders that I see in listening/supporting is that we often make assumptions about what the person in pain needs. The problem with these assumptions is that we’re often pretty far off base. Because of this, I am a huge fan of asking directly, “What do you need right now?” Sometimes I ask the question with a multiple choice format, “Do you need to just vent, or do you need me to distract you, or do you need a hug?” The simple act of asking what is needed reminds both you and the person you’re listening to that THEY know their needs best.

I hope this overview begins to open some discussions on how we can all listen to one another in a more supportive way. I’d love to hear more from you. What would you add to the list? Any listening “dos & don’ts”?

10 thoughts on “Five Steps to More Compassionate Listening

  1. I really agree that listening should be as simple as just that… listening.

    I used to have an incredible problem with trying to formulate a response while the other person was still talking… it was during a conversation, however, with my lovely great aunt, that I realized I was missing just what she was trying to tell me by doing that. I also think your other suggestions are equally important… especially #5 and #3 as I think they often go hand in hand

  2. What a wonderful and insightful (and clearly articulated) post. So often we’re so busy with trying to come up with the right thing to say that we stop listening long before the other person feels she is getting heard. I think that the key to listening is just that; allowing the person expressing their emotions enough space to feel that we’re not just listening to their words, but that we hear what their emotions are. Also I think it’s important to dare ask questions; unless we understand what the other person is trying to share with us it’s not possible for them to feel truly heard. I’m not talking about highjacking the other’s space with intrusive questions, but simply to sensitively let them know that you want them to tell you again because it’s important to you that you understand what you are being told. That their feelings matter to you.

    1. Yes–You have it spot on! I really appreciate your point about asking questions. In fact, I may steal that as a blog post idea, because it is definitely worth further exploration! Thank you for stopping by.

  3. It takes me back, your post, to when I was a chronic interrupter.

    I’m proud to say, after a combination of discipline, Yoga breathing, and time, I have embraced the power and pleasure [and rewards !]of listening. But at the beginning: OMG. It was torture. To suppress that urge to have my say: really tough.

    However: Now that I’ve read your hugely eloquent and astute post, I’ll have to get to work on not projecting.

    Many thanks Anne!
    (BTW: I’m not a healthcare professional, but everything you said applies)

    1. Kathy,

      Sometimes I come back to this post and re-read it, just to remind myself how I want to interact with others. It’s funny. These are things that I do automatically in session, but when I’m with someone that I love, I still need these reminders. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your insight. And don’t worry–nothing that I write is specific to healthcare professionals, so I’m thrilled that you’r e!


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