Are You Listening to Me?- Part 2

“Perhaps it is true that we do not really exist until there is someone there to see us existing,
we cannot properly speak until there is someone who can understand what we are saying in essence,
we are not wholly alive until we are loved.”
– Alain de Botton

In my previous Blog- Are You Listening to Me? Part I– we dove into what it means to listen well and how to develop skills for active listening. In Part 2, we’re going to get really practical about the Do’s and Don’ts of listening well to your partner, parent, protege, or other people in your life. How are you practicing the art and skill of listening well to others? Has anyone noticed your efforts? Chances are good that if you’re listening with your whole heart, someone will notice. You may even see some positive changes happening. Changes like reducing stress, less tension with your spouse, a desire from your children to actually spend time with you. Perhaps a friend or sibling calls just to say hello or asking for your advice.

In this current climate, many of us are struggling with depression, anxiety, loneliness and even suicidal thoughts. If you’re not struggling, I’m sure you know someone who is. Perhaps they’ve turned to antidepressants or self-medicating with alcohol. Maybe they’ve pulled away or are constantly on the go avoiding their pain. What’s the answer to our struggles? What can we do to change?

Making changes

The answer to our woes lies in our personal responsibility to be the change we wish to see in our relationships. If you’re reading this, you’re perfectly placed to be a change maker. At some point in life we’ve all experienced not being heard or feeling misunderstood. On the contrary, can you think of a time when you were heard? Have you ever shared your broken heart and heard the listener say, “Tell me more, I want to make sure I’m understanding you.” It’s an enormous relief to be truly heard and understood. What if you were able to do the same for your spouse, a struggling friend, or loved one?

I remember a difficult time in my life when I felt like no one understood the gravity of my circumstances. I felt so alone, discouraged, and depressed. Those feelings were only intensified when I would attempt to express my heartache to a trusted friend or family member and the message was not received. More often than not, when I would share my woes, I was quickly given advice on how to improve my circumstances. So often the response would be “I’m sorry to hear that” or the subject was quickly changed most likely because the listener felt uncomfortable.

Thankfully, this was not always the case. I will never forget the text I received from a friend when she heard what was happening in my life. I actually wrote her response in my journal because it meant so much to me! She repeated back to me the circumstances I was in, followed by this response:

“That must be so stressful for you on many levels. What led to your decision must have been very complicated and heavy. I’m sending your battered heart a big hug.”

As tears fell down my face, I felt an instant sense of relief! My friend simply heard me, considered my experience, and then sat in my pain just long enough to communicate her understanding. I experienced connection, understanding and “you’re not alone.” All from a text message! Whether conversation is face-to-face, through an email, a voicemail or text you can connect in this same way. Imagine the power of your active, sincere, empathic listening with your loved one.

Suggestions for listening

Let me help you with a few more suggestions on this critical work you’re engaging in. By the way, I’m so proud of you for reading and giving this a try!

If you’re going to embark on this journey of improving communication by learning to listen well, you’ve got to engage your heart. Trying to follow a set of rules and techniques, will only cause your efforts to fall flat. They will be seen exactly for what they are- a manipulation to get your way or to earn your turn to be heard. You absolutely, positively must cultivate the willingness to yield. Let go of your own agenda and seek to understand the other person first. This is true love, empathy, care and concern in action.

Remember from my first blog, empathy is “feeling with”, recognizing and validating the emotions of the person sharing with you. In the example above, when my friend acknowledged my stress ‘on many levels’, she told me she understood the gravity of my pain and situation. She entered my world for a moment and I literally felt my shoulders drop. My friend mirrored to me what I was experiencing and attuned to my emotional experience. I had the benefit of experiencing someone’s attention, which in turn helped me to not feel so alone. She briefly summarized what she heard me saying and then asked more questions to better understand what was happening.

Let’s break this down with some practical application.

How to listen well:

  1. As you begin this effort to listen well, it’s important to check in with your own heart, mind and body. Are you listening to yourself? If you’re stressed and anxious, what kind of listener will you be when offering someone a gentle, compassionate ear? If you’re faking it, the conversation probably will not end well. You cannot offer someone else what you’re not offering to yourself. Take a moment to breathe, examine your heart, your motives, and your end goal. Remember, your goal is to seek to understand the other person before you request they understand you.
  2. Listen for the emotions behind the statements and explanations. Can you feel those emotions too? Ask “How does that make you feel?” Or “How are you feeling right now?” When you slow down to explore feelings, this tells your spouse or friend that you’re attuned to them. It communicates a certain level of relational safety for that person to continue sharing.
  3. Tune into their facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice and body language. These are all important signals to how this person is feeling and what they are experiencing. The signals you send are also important for you to be aware of!
  4. Make eye contact. Please be natural about your eye contact as a blank stare may feel a little intimidating. Offering your undivided attention by looking into the eyes of the person conveys their value and importance to you.
  5. Be patient, allow time. The laundry can wait and you can respond to the text later. Better yet, leave the phone in the other room on silent.
  6. Ask open-ended questions. An open-ended question is one that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. Ask questions to clarify what you’re hearing and deepen your understanding. For example, “I’m not sure I fully understand what you meant by that, could you explain more?”
  7. Summarize and restate in your own words what you hear them saying. Then validate their experience. This important technique will communicate your understanding or reveal misunderstanding. Remember, you don’t have to agree, just accept this is their perspective. If they say, “I’m so overwhelmed at work!” You might reply, “So I’m hearing you say the workload has become too much and you’re stressed out.”
  8. Empathize, empathize, empathize. Here’s a simple example of how to empathize: “That sounds really hard. I really don’t know what to say but I understand you’re struggling and feeling alone.”
    Ask if they feel understood by you. Check in to see if there is anything else they want you to understand. Ask, “Am I getting you right?” Or “Is there anything else you want to tell me?”
    Take time to ponder their perspective and position. You don’t have to fix the problem now and it may not be the right time to request they listen to you. Thank them for sharing with you and assure them you will consider carefully any requests or needs.

What NOT to do:

  • Don’t Justify, Argue, Defend, or Explain yourself. You will both become JADEd! For a great video on Don’t JADE, click here.
  • Don’t keep listening if you become overwhelmed. It’s ok to kindly ask for a time out if the conversation escalates. Take a thirty minute break before returning to the conversation.
  • Do not focus on right and wrong. This is big. If you stay focused on facts, you’ll end up arguing because of differing perspectives and opinions. This is not a debate or a time to prove who’s right. You’re trying to mend brokenness, to come closer, not push each other further away. Can you accept your partner’s perspective without agreeing with them? The answer is YES, but it might take some work if you’re not used to doing so.
  • Do not judge, condemn, critique, dismiss, or minimize their experience.
  • Do not get distracted by things around you or things within you. Right now you’re actively suspending your own need to defend yourself or explain your ways. Relax! You’ll get your turn later.
  • Do not react. Instead, practice deep breathing, remind yourself the goal right now is to seek to understand them. You have the ability to self soothe and wait your turn.
  • Do not try to fix their problem or attempt to make them feel better. If one feels like a problem to be fixed, they will likely feel inferior, more insecure, more lonely, and more disconnected.

 

Give time to improve listening

Are you still with me? I know, that’s a lot! It may feel daunting, but I encourage you to give it a try. Learning to actively listen is not about perfection. We all have a lot to learn when it comes to relationships. Consider how much time and energy you give to your work, your home, your yard, your shows. Can you give some of that time to your spouse or partner? What would happen if, instead of watching the game or your favorite rom-com, your loved one got your undivided attention instead? Remember, active, empathic, genuine listening is the foundation of loving well. It builds trust and intimacy.

If you desire a healthy, thriving marriage, family, and personal relationships, you will learn to practice listening well. Active listening is the key to understanding the needs and concerns of your significant others as well as your own. Of course, if you need help putting this into practice, please give us a call at Married Life Counseling– we’d love to come alongside you as you prioritize your marriage and most significant relationships.

Christie Orosz, LPCC-S

Christie Orosz, LPCC-S

Christie is the founder of Married Life Counseling and her passion for marriage stems from her own personal journey. Her parents struggled, and then she and her husband struggled. She has the determination to help other couples grow in their marriage.

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