The Art of Truly Listening
Mistakes and Remedies for Being a Good Listener
Many of us have struggled with being a good listener. We may know the frustration when we aren’t listened to, are interrupted, given unwarranted advice or criticized. The breakdown in being heard results in feeling lonely, unknown and disconnected from others. Not being heard can also leave us feeling angry and resentful. Often, we just give up on expressing ourselves.
Deep listening is an art. It does not come naturally for most of us. Just as learning to play a musical instrument requires dedication and practice, listening is a social skill that requires a similar dedication. When done with skill, listening is a gateway to connection, discovery, healing, playfulness and magic.
Deep listening can be briefly described as: surrendering your agenda—having your agenda be about following the other person’s agenda; allowing the speaker to have their experience, their thoughts, their emotions—whatever presents itself; and bringing relaxed, focused attention to every word and message being expressed.
Of course, everyday interactions often don’t lend themselves to this level of communication, however, we can also find ways to bring depth to casual conversations.
Six Listening Mistakes and Six Remedies
1. Mistake: Interrupting, changing the subject or commenting too quickly.
Remedy: Silence and focused attention. It is an interesting coincidence that the words “listen” and “silent” have the exact same letters. We don’t have to be completely silent when we’re deeply listening to another, but a little silence goes a long way. Allow the person to find their way to the points they want to make.
2. Mistake: Offering advice and suggestions too quickly. This one is a communication killer. When we give advice to someone who just needs to express, we increase any distress the person is already experiencing.
Remedy: Allow the speaker to have their experience. Don’t attempt to fix anything or give advice unless it’s wanted. Often, solutions to problems will occur organically as the speaker unravels themselves.
At other times, simply being listened to without interference is the solution. When we listen and allow another to freely express without judging, we have provided the “fix” they needed. If we are going to offer solutions, first ask the person if they are open to suggestions.
3. Mistake: Judging—having negative assessments of the person. Even when we don’t speak our judgment, the judgment will come across to the speaker and will compromise or shut down the conversation.
Remedy: Bring a spirit of acceptance and allowance to the interaction. We are going to have judgments, but keep them in check when possible. Acceptance is the premier component to bring to a conversation. One tip is to avoid asking questions that begin with “why”, which implies a negative judgment. Instead, start the question with the word “what”, i.e. “What was it that had you take the dog on a different path today?”
4. Mistake: Messing with emotions. Minimizing, soothing, stepping over, or judging the speaker’s difficult emotions will not create the result we want. The speaker will either get angry or shut down.
Remedy: Allow and explore emotions. Go into the emotions, not away from them. Sadness, fear, confusion, hopelessness and anger need to be accepted and allowed—even embraced. When feelings are allowed to be, they have a chance to soften—or even disappear.
5. Mistake: Making the conversation about you and your agenda, bringing the attention away from the speaker and onto yourself. Often, we are not listening because we are giving thought to what we want to say next.
Remedy: Follow the speaker’s lead. If you do speak about you, have your message contribute to where the other person is going. For example, you might share something personal and vulnerable about you that makes them feel less alone in their challenges and flaws. Or, you may on occasion share a personal story that conveys to the speaker that you relate to their message.
6. Mistake: Not understanding something the person has said, but letting the person continue talking.
Remedy: Commit yourself to understanding every single word, every message. If we don’t understand a word or a message, then ask for clarity. Or make a request: “Could you say what you just said in different words?” If we carry question marks during the conversation, our brain will get overloaded with unanswered questions. We also won’t be as good a listener.
Our world is in desperate need of good communicators. Many life problems can be nipped in the bud, or prevented, simply with good communication skills.
Remember that when listening, we are offering the speaker the gift of our attention. Be aware that much of communication occurs on a non-physical, unseen level. Words are a small representation of a rich array of thoughts, feelings and desires. Very little of the unseen will be expressed in words. Listen for the unsaid messages. We should not assume we already know most everything about the person in front of us. Assume that there is much that you don’t know about this person, and that there is much that the person doesn’t know about themselves. Bring an attitude of curiosity, exploration and discovery to the conversation.
Obviously, your every conversation will often not be a deep process where there is a designated speaker and a designated listener. To further develop expertise in listening, one may find it useful to have a listening partner where you both practice your listening skills.
Bill White is a relationship and communication specialist in Tucson. See the extended version of this article at TheHealthyCouple.com.