‘We think we listen, but we don’t. We finish each other’s sentences, we interrupt each other, we moan together, we fill in the pauses with our own stories, we look at our watches, we sigh, we frown, tap our finger, read the newspaper or walk away. We give advice, give advice, give advice. Even professional listeners listen poorly much of the time. They come in too soon with their own ideas. The equate talking with looking professional”
Nancy Kline from ‘Time to Think’
I have come to believe that one of the core skills vital to a successful relationship is that of listening. This is the case with our intimate partner, our children and anyone else we are in connection with.
I also think most of us are not very good at it.
The good news is that this is a skill that anyone can learn and deepen. When we can listen well it brings us closer together, helps understand each other and solve conflicts, gives space and respect to our partner and gives high quality support when they most need us.
In addition to being unskilled, another challenge is when I know someone really well, it is even harder to listen than if they were a stranger.
After all, I know what they are going to say as soon as they start – maybe even better than they know themselves. Finishing their sentences for them just shows how deeply bonded we are, doesn’t it? I know what they need and what advice to give them because I am so familiar with the ways they can’t function without me and I know what will work for them. And because I care about them, I want to fix their problems for them and soothe away any suffering. We are connected, so if they suffer then so do I. I don’t really need to waste time to listen – because … well … I KNOW.
Hmmm …. Really?
I don’t want to dwell too much on problems but rather get to the solution. Yet I think it’s worth exploring a little about the impact of some of these common listening blockages:
The Problem With …
I think I know what you are going to say and have got impatient so I finish it for you – then I can get on and say what I want to say. Or maybe I’m so triggered by what I heard that I just can’t wait to correct you. Or maybe I’m really excited about what I think you are saying and want to add my voice. All of this is a sign of my impatience. My subtext is, “Get on with it, I have something more important to say”
No matter the reason for my interrupting, I have already stopped listening to what you say. Knowing this, you will either try to find another moment to express yourself or you will withdraw from this part of the communication. What’s the point in engaging with me if I’m not even prepared to allow you to finish a sentence?
I do believe there are moments when I owe it to both of us to interrupt but these are rare and there is a separate art to doing this without damaging our connection (I will explore in a future article).
If I give advice when you didn’t ask for it, I am effectively saying ‘You can’t deal with this well by yourself – I know better and this is what you should do …’. Even if I mean well and my advice comes from a place of care, I am still putting myself above you. If you are unaware of this subtle power play, you will either rebel against my advice or submit to it (and then likely blame me when it doesn’t work).
Advice comes from a place of me seeing a problem and wanting to fix it. You may see it the same way and ask me for advice – and it will then be welcome. But if you are simply wanting to vent, or to share, or to think through the issue yourself – then my advice will derail you.
Consoling or Sympathising
When you are suffering and I hear this in your words then I am likely to want to soothe or comfort you. I may do this by saying things such as “Oh, you poor thing” or “I know just what that feels like”.
I want to stress that I don’t consider this as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ – just that it means I have stopped listening to your experience and am wanting to fix what I perceive as a ‘problem’. Pain (emotional and physical) is part of your experience of life (mine too) and is not a problem. I believe the best I can do is hear this as yours and be with you as you go through it.
Expressions such as “Come on, it’s not that bad” or “ You’ll soon feel better” or “Don’t worry, be happy” are all versions of me attempting to minimise your experience. Similar to consoling or sympathising, I am hearing that you have a problem and I am trying to persuade you it is not as big as you seem to be implying. In other words I am telling you that I know better than you what you are experiencing in this moment – and I know it’s not as bad as you seem to think it is.
How to Listen Well
“If we try to listen we find it extraordinarily difficult, because we are always projecting our opinions and ideas, our prejudices, our background, our inclinations, our impulses; when they dominate, we hardly listen at all to what is being said. In that state there is no value at all.
One listens and therefore learns, only in a state of attention, a state of silence, in which this whole background is in abeyance, is quiet; then, it seems to me, it is possible to communicate.!
When you speak you want to be heard.
You may want other things once you have been heard – but being heard will always be the driving need behind opening your mouth. So the art of listening well is to listen – and only listen – until we are both clear what else you might need (for example, consolation, advice, sympathy, encouragement etc.). The art of listening is also about not assuming I know what you want but to check with you once I have heard you.
Shut up – listening is an inner process. If I’m talking, I’m not listening. I cannot talk and listen at the same time – no matter how much I would like to believe I can.
Empty my mind, open my heart – when I am thinking, I am not listening. It is truly hard to empty my mind completely but I do improve with practice. I often react and translate what I hear as I try to make sense of it and relate it to my own reality. If I focus instead on keeping my thoughts to one side and my heart open to you, then it is easier. I can notice when my mind is activated and gently bring myself back to you. I can notice any judgements I have and suspend them when my heart is receiving you as well as my ears and my mind.
Stay present and still – the deepest form of listening is a quality of presence that is hard to describe. It is something to experience. It happens when I am completely still, attentive and present. Empathy is sometimes defined as putting myself in your shoes. I experience it closer to putting myself in your skin. I am empty because I am totally with you and there is no space for me in this moment. Empathy is a higher form of listening.
Signals – you may have a hard time trusting that the silence and stillness coming from me is true listening. You are so used to getting verbal or visual clues (head nodding, ‘aha’, ‘mmmm’, questions, paraphrasing etc.). The art of listening includes know when to naturally give signals that I am with you without intruding on your thinking or your speaking.
Check what the other wants – I may have an idea what you want from me but I would like to start from an assumption that you want me only to listen.
When there is nothing left to hear that may be enough. Being listened to often clears your thinking so you no longer need advice. Empathy is a powerful healer and you may already feel better and need nothing more from me.
At times you may want something more. That might be hearing anything that’s stimulated in me to get a sense of connection. That may be some reassurance, or advice, or an arm around you to hold you. I want to trust you know what you need and not assume I know better.
We are not great at listening and we can get better. Separate listening from anything else that might be asked for and do the listening first and for as long as is needed. If you can listen well, then you will notice an immediate improvement in your relationship.