“Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.” — Rachel Naomi Remen
For many of us, what someone says and what we hear may be wildly divergent.
“When can we talk?” can easily translate to “Uh, oh. I’m in the doghouse.”
“You look fine,” can become “he hates what I’m wearing.”
Clearly, listening is not simply about hearing the words someone says.
Many of us listen through a filter that consists of assumptions and preconceptions. We think we already know what the other is going to say, what he or she thinks and feels. Sometimes we’re so busy formulating our response (or rebuttal) that we cease to be present.
Listening takes patience. When people speak they often need time to formulate their thoughts and clearly communicate them. Speaking is a process of uncovering, of connecting the dots. Good listening requires that the listener slow down and let the conversation unfold.
Listening takes effort. Good listening calls for focus, intention and willingness to engage. Though listening requires receptivity, it is in no way passive.
Listening also takes courage. When listening we may experience feelings and thoughts that are emotionally painful. We may feel angry or hurt or misunderstood. Listening and intimacy go hand in hand. Intimacy is about taking a risk to reveal oneself to another. Listening is about staying present when the other reveals, even when it’s challenging to do so.
If you’re ready to go from being an ordinary listener to a masterful one, keep the following principles in mind:
1. Give the speaker your undivided attention. No sneaking peeks at the ESPN sports update on your iPhone, no checking your texts.
2. Be ready to hear what the other is saying without judgment. A skillful listener shifts into neutral, listening for understanding, without defensiveness or resistance.
3. Know that listening can be anxiety provoking. Do your best to calm down.
4. Adopt a stance of curiosity. Think: What can I learn about my partner? Be open to discovery.
5. Don’t interrupt to share your response, opinion or reaction, even though it may seem crucial to do so. (Remember: listening is a receptive activity designed to increase understanding.)
6. Keep in mind that what’s being said is about the speaker, not about you. An effective communicator will avoid blaming, but like good listening, that skill takes time and effort to cultivate. Even if your partner is pointing the finger at you, do your best to remain non-reactive and curious.
7. Ask questions that help the speaker clarify, look more deeply and gain a broader understanding of what he or she is expressing. We all have a great deal to learn about ourselves and what’s important to us. A good listener can facilitate that learning. When pressure mounts, many people act as if they’re in court, asking questions that are more like a cross-examination, trying to corner the speaker rather than fully understand his or her message. People often say things like, “Yesterday you said this and NOW you’re saying that!” or “Isn’t it true that… ” neither of which are evidence of open-minded listening. “Why not ask him where he was on the night of the murder?” I once said to a client who had shifted into full interrogation mode.
8. Restate what you’ve heard in as unbiased a way as possible. “What I’m hearing is… Is that correct?” The goal is to make sure that you’re fully understanding the message.
9. Do not offer unsolicited solutions or advice.
10. Resist the urge to argue, correct, or defend. Remember, truth comes in versions. Your job as a listener is to learn as much as you can about your partner’s version without needing to have it line up with yours.
11. Listen through the “noise” to hear what hurt or disappointment or struggle your partner is expressing. Do your best to respond to that.
12. Cultivate a willingness to be vulnerable. True listening is done more with your heart than with your ears.
When done masterfully, listening opens the door to deeper understanding and empathy. This, in turn, leads to a more caring and intimate relationship, where partners are willing to risk both knowing and being known.
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