Listening, of course, involves taking in and understanding what the client expresses about his or her difficulties. How much do we really listen to others, or are listened to deeply ourselves? Have you ever had the experience of having a family member or friend talk about something, and noticing you were barely paying attention? Perhaps you were following the story a bit, but your mind was also going on in other directions at the same time. Unfortunately, for many of us, most listening encounters are just like this. Everyone is busy, distracted with their own concerns, multi-tasking.
So imagine taking the time today to completely stop and listen to someone in your life fully. I sometimes help my clients practice a method called “Active Listening”, which involves summarizing back to the other person what you think they were trying to say – without adding any of your own commentary, opinion or recommendations. It is surprisingly hard to do! Tips to help you listen actively to someone today:
- Try to leave your judgments out of the conversation for a moment. Thoughts like “that’s a silly thing to worry about”, “I wouldn’t have done that”, “you shouldn’t have made that decision” – put them on the back burner of your mind while talking.
- Summarize back especially the feelings – both stated and unstated – that you think the other person is experiencing. If you guess wrong, give him or her a chance to correct you.
- At a good moment, if you are able to appreciate why the other person feels as they do, acknowledge it:
- “I can see why you’re so angry about what your boss did.”
- “I’m really glad you had such a fun date – you sound excited!”
Listening is not just with the ears – as one sits with another person, one can notice his or her posture, facial expression, the tone of voice, how animated the hands become during a story – and all of these details are part of the process of listening fully.
In some ways, listening is about clearing enough inner space to make room for another person’s story and understand it as fully as possible. I cannot ever know what you are feeling, nor can you know what I am feeling, in the same way that we can each be aware of our own feelings and thoughts directly. We are, after all, different people. But by listening well, we can create a realistic understanding of another person’s situation, and that helps us respond with empathy and wisdom.
FOLLOWUP: Read the second part of this series of essays.