How to Listen

Now that I've covered Things You Are Doing that Are Not Listening, I'm going to get into how to actively listen to somebody. Although the first post is enlightening I didn't want to leave you hanging! It kept sticking out in my mind, I told people how not to listen, now I need to complete the information and let you know how to actually go about listening, too.

You may have heard of active listening, practicing it in a training at work or a couple's workshop. It's basically a way of letting the speaker know that you are hearing them, so that person feels good inside and understands that you get them. It prevents arguments from popping up or the speaker continuing to rephrase and repeat themselves over and over again because they think you don't understand. It's a frustrating loop to get caught up in.

The first major rule in the following list is to remember that you are LISTENING! So even though you are saying things to let the speaker know you are listening, you aren't inputting a lot of your own thoughts and ideas into the mix at first. You aren't trying to fix any problems or convince the speaker of anything. You are giving them the gift of being truly present for what they are sharing with you, putting your judgments and ideas to the side, and holding space for another person. This creates intimacy and connection as the speaker feels deeply felt and heard. Ideally, either from already having the skill set of listening or learning from your generous example, this person will then take a turn and actually listen to what you have to say as well.

Paraphrasing - This is the biggest major tool in active listening. Simply repeat back what the person said in your own words. It stops conflict in its tracks because what you're saying is in total agreement. It can also clarify miscommunication on the spot. It's even therapeutic for the speaker, the psychologist Carl Rogers once experimented with doing pure paraphrasing as a form of talk therapy and it helped the clients to find their own answers within. Some ways to try out starting your paraphrasing sentences are, "So what you're saying is..." "In other words..." "So you basically felt like..." "Do you mean...?"

Clarifying - Ask questions specifically about what is being said. Your intention in listening is to fully understand, and you might need more background info. Sharpen your focus and ask questions when the speaker is vague or speaking in general terms. Put yourself into their shoes and ask about any details that are missing - what did they think or feel. This sends a clear signal that you are interested and willing to work on getting to know them.

Giving Feedback - Now it's time to share your thoughts! Mindfulness practice will help you notice when parts of you are being reactive so you can stop yourself from arguing or being defensive. Giving feedback is the healthy, assertive way of sharing your internal reactions. Start with checking your perceptions. You may have noticed the speaker saying one thing and their body language saying something different. Good feedback is honest, supportive and immediate. It doesn't work out so well if you tell it to the person later. Examples include, "From what you said, I wonder if [...] could be what's really going on," or "I get the feeling something's missing, maybe something you're not telling me?" or a more positive example, "You are a badass. I'm so inspired by you!"

Listening with Empathy - This skill means keeping at the forefront of your mind that this is a human being you are listening to, no one is perfect, and this person is doing the best they can. If you feel upset by someone's choices, ask yourself what it is that they are trying to survive, and remind yourself that their anger, criticism, or self-pity is just a reactive pattern they are stuck in. The only thing that will help them get out of it is the space inherent in an empathetic and compassionate interaction. If you're caught in a struggle of trying to save the person, convince them of a solution, or you're just pissed off, you're not in alignment with empathy.

Listening with Openness - Meaning openness to ideas you disagree with. Nearly everyone has trouble with this. Opinions and beliefs are closely tied to self-esteem. Being wrong can be equated with being stupid or worthless. No one wants to see their beliefs torn down, or believe that someone you don't like has said something valuable. If it helps you can pretend you are an anthropologist listening to someone from another country. They have a totally different way of thinking and talking, and before making judgments you have to put effort in to understand the complete picture and why it makes sense. When you master this skill, you are able to talk to people you disagree with and calmly find common ground. This person may have different beliefs, but you are both human after all with the main goal of having safe families and communities to live in. Be committed to understanding what was said, even if you're angry or upset.

Nonverbals - Good eye contact, leaning slightly forward, nodding, facial expressions. Adding all of this in creates a total listening package.

And there you have it! Practice and let me know how it goes. Make sure to read the first post linked at the top of this one if you haven't yet. You're all set to be an All-Star Listener and take over my job! I'm kidding - but these skills are probably 75% of what I do and the rest is just using different specific tools and techniques depending on the client.

Now that you know how to listen, in my next posts about communication I'll get into how to sbe the speaker and communicate your message clearly! 

Adapted from Messages: The Communication Skills Book

Patricia Borgess