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”?