Let’s say a friend wants a chat and they’ve something on their mind they want to discuss. It might be one big thing that’s bothering them deeply, or it might be a series of more apparently trivial things, but collectively they’ve mounted up and become heavier. They are burdened, weighed down, and they need to off-load this stuff, at least for a while and maybe, just maybe, see it differently through talking about it. That’s why talking is so good for people. And you’re the person they’ve chosen to talk to, and this is in itself a compliment, an honour even – they’ve chosen you to share it with and you want to do this justice, you want to do a good job.
Actually, it doesn’t have to be a friend, it can be anyone, anywhere – a stranger at a bus stop, while you’re waiting in a queue, someone in the supermarket. And just a little bit of time spent listening properly can serve a purpose in that person’s day, as well as being an act of kindness. And by giving that time and attention to someone outside of your own concerns, is also good for you and your own perspective. I’d even go as far to say that by decreasing self-absorption which us arty folk can be prone to, it helps us to grow as individuals too.
So I thought I’d pass on some of the things I’ve learned over the last few years about listening well. This is after a week I’ve just had of lots of conversations, two lasting for around two hours each, one lasting about three hours – yes a tad long, but we were both listening well to each other and basking in some rare sun for this summer in bonny Scotland. And I just love conversations now. Most of what I’ve learned is from a counselling skills course, and then I picked up more from some voluntary work training here and there. I have to say it sounded easy at first, ’listening well’, and I thought to myself, I’m already a good listener, so let’s get on with the theories, pleeease!
But I underestimated it, big time. I wanted, like many of us, to get on and try to fix the problems, asking too many questions too soon, never seeing that the listening part is fundamentally crucial to any benefits that may come later on.
Why it’s so important
Through expressing thoughts and feelings verbally, it can shine light on a problem, and you can make connections between the problems, and there may well be a common denominator that pushes its way through (a so called light-bulb moment), or significant repetitions of feeling, that you as the listener sees or the speaker sees for themselves. For example, they may realise they’ve misjudged a situation by being blinkered about it. Something like not seeing the forest for the trees, or not being able to think outside of the box. And right now, they may be locked in that box and can’t get out. And they’re talking to you from inside that box.
When someone else is hearing what you say, and understanding with empathy, it’s a kind of validation and reassurance, that person whose listening well cares about you. And we all like to be cared about, and we all matter.
So how do we do it?
To listen well, you basically need to take away the features of bad listening of which there are many (and I used to do a lot of them). Doing the opposite of these is what makes good listening.
Ditch your self consciousness – because this leads to other problems, as below. Being too aware of how you sound, how you look, or what the other person is thinking about you (eg in an interview), all gets in the way of giving your attention, and then you realise you’ve completely lost track and they are now asking you something as pointed as ‘What would you do? (ouch).
Having to repeat yourself to someone who isn’t listening properly is a killer and the speaker’s faith in you can be seriously compromised. If this happens, own up to it, apologise sincerely, and then listen properly. Keep the focus on them, observe how they look, how they sound, keeping their benefit in mind, and you’ll find it so much more relaxing too.
Judging – easier said than done to get rid of this because we all do it, whether we think we do or not, it’s there. But you can push it away, by being open minded and suspending judgement until you’ve got beyond it. And you may well find your initial assessment was way off the mark. We judge as a kind of defence mechanism, so learning not to judge so quickly naturally makes you a more open person.
Identifying with – your own similar experience bulldozers it way into you mind and you just have to share it now. I know this one well. You interrupt with your own experience and before you know it you’ve taken over the conversation, and the speaker is left hanging, not having related their ‘story’ to the end and feeling short changed. So bring it back to being about them, not you.
Having said this, later on, sharing your story with them may well help with reassurance. We all like to know we are not alone in feeling something, experiencing something unpleasant, so it’s a natural thing to identify when the timing is right. We are all collectively human and we all need to see this sometimes in a culture of materialist individualism.
Too quick to give advice – we call like to help and advise, but we often do so before listening to the whole situation. If it was so easily solved, that person would probably have solved it for themselves already. So listen to the whole story and be circumspect about giving advice. It’s better if, through talking to you, they decide for themselves what they are going to do.
Interrupting –this is so obvious, but how many of us do this? I used to do it all the time, and still frequently do. It’s because you’re keen, your passionate, you’re loving this conversation and you just have to say…to add…
But it makes it look as if you put yourself first before the speaker, you’re all that matters, you’re just not listening to them.
Finishing peoples sentences for them is another form of this (I know this one too).
Derailing – you might do this if the conversation is getting boring for whatever reason(due to repetitions perhaps), or if the topic is making you uncomfortable. You might change the subject abruptly, which is another real killer for the speaker. It’s good to acknowledge it if you realise you’ve done this, it will soften the blow and then you can get back on track.
Filtering – listening to parts of the conversation and not others eg the negatives instead of the positives and vice versa. You need to see the full picture, not overlay it with your own colour filter.
Comparing – the speaker to yourself, or their situation to your own. You’re quietly assessing and while you’re doing so, you’re losing track of what is being said. But after objectively listening for some time, comparisons can be made to make some useful points and connections.
Analysing – I’m loath to put this in, because I like it so much. But I’m not properly trained like many of us aren’t. What if you get it wrong looking for hidden meanings, and what if that person takes you seriously? It’s best avoided. But if you’re with someone who does it too, and you both understand you are only speculating together, then that makes for interesting conversation!
Patronising – Hmm, this is quite a biggie actually. It’s so easy to sound patronising without meaning to. And if the speaker is in a sensitive ‘place’ it can be downright insulting. All those simpering sympathetic noises are a way of being patronising, with comments like oh dear…absolutely…of course you are…of course you do…that’s just awful…building up to something like… I just don’t know how can you stand it!
I hate sympathy personally. I suppose we can define it as ‘feeling sorry for’. It’s totally unconstructive, making you feel like your situation is just unbearable. In fact it makes me angry. I think people do it because they are thinking of themselves, projecting your problem into their lives, imagining themselves trying to bear your situation and they just can’t conceive how you can ‘stand it’ because they wouldn’t be able to stand it. It makes you feel worse, not better. It feels destructive.
Empathy on the other hand is showing understanding. You put yourself in the speaker’s place to see where they are coming from, to see their point of view. It’s about what’s happening in the world of them, that you can then try to relate to. You may not relate to it, but you are trying to, putting yourself in their place to try to feel what they are feeling. And the speaker get this and appreciates it. It feels constructive.
A Much Needed Summary
Good listening takes lots of practice, and it’s not about being a sponge to soak up someone else’s worries, in a passive, non-contributory role, (as I used to sometimes see it on my counselling course). Rather, listening well is an active process, ensuring that the person really knows you are listening, right now, to them and no-one else. You can achieve this by being open to them, and giving your focus of attention, by feeding back to them what they’ve said, to show you understand, by asking for clarification if you don’t understand something, by showing empathy, by acknowledging difficulties and identifying strengths. Learning to listen well can be such a rewarding experience. If you get it right, you’re more relaxed in yourself and you’re more relaxing to be with…and of course to talk to.
I now set myself the challenge of bringing a shorter post next week!
(Images courtesy of pixabay)