A large portion of our time is spent in conversation with others. Regardless of our familiarity with the other person or the purpose for the discussion, it can sometimes be difficult to achieve clarity and understanding across both parties.
Perhaps this is why difficulty communicating is one of the top complaints of those seeking therapy. Some clients, for example, express frustration when talking with someone who is just waiting their turn to speak or who shuts down and refuses to respond. At the same time, learning to identify and let go of whatever preconceived notions, personal agenda, or emotional reactivity the listener has can be just as difficult an endeavour.
Taking in the meaning behind someone’s comments as opposed to just their words is not an easy task, but it speaks to the yearning we all have to be heard and understood. Therefore, a key component of a healthy relationship is our ability to listen and reflect back our understanding as well as our thoughts, hopes, and expressions of support. Honing helpful listening skills builds connections and healthier relationships while ensuring that we are efficient in our communication and are creating space to have closer relationships with others.
When we approach conversations with the goal of understanding the other person first, both sides win.
Here are four tips for being a good listener:
1. Avoid False Listening
Certain responses can make it seem like listening is happening, but the meaning behind these responses can end up stopping the conversation in its tracks. Watch out for common categories of false listening including “one-upping,” which consists of topping the other person’s experience with a story of your own. Showing excessive sympathy or being overly emphatic is another danger as it can come across as patronizing to the other person. Finally, while using humour can be helpful at times, it automatically causes a loss of attunement and a lightening of the topic. Make sure it’s being used at the right time.
Good listening involves giving space for the other person to fully and completely share their point of view. Acknowledging the person’s feelings in a calm, understanding way keeps the conversation going and allows the speaker to share their present experience more fully. Similarly, giving advice sends the message that the person should be doing something about their situation, not just talking about it. In reality, people may need to sort through their thoughts and feelings about a situation (sometimes repeatedly) before making a decision about how to respond or act. A good listener will do their best to give space for this to happen.
2. Active Listening
At its very core, proper listening is not a passive act. It requires the listener to be open and attuned to the speaker while allowing them to have control of the conversation. Taking time to paraphrase what the person has said and checking for understanding of the message can be a great place to start. This is known as active listening and consists of making regular eye contact, using body language and gestures to show engagement, and not interrupting the speaker.
Being comfortable with silences and using open-ended questions are also very important tools for active listening. Open-ended questions are those that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” and tend to start with “how” or “what.” For example, “How did you find yourself in that position?” “What made you feel that way?” or “Can you tell me more about that?”
3. Listen With Empathy
Listening is about taking in information, but it can also be an opportunity to validate an individual’s current experience. When we listen with empathy, we see the other person’s world, understand their current feelings, appreciate them as human beings, and communicate our understanding and affirmation of this experience.
One of the ways we can show empathy while listening is to suspend our own needs and commit to taking the speaker seriously by giving them space to explore things. Think of it as avoiding being the other person’s filter and instead being more of a mirror. Reflect back what the speaker has stated and follow them along at their own pace. To provide a bit of reassurance, it is important to note that acknowledging someone else’s thoughts or feelings about something is not a sign of agreeing – it is simply showing that you have heard and understood them.
4. Withhold Judgement
Holding back on any emotional response you might be feeling is vital to getting the whole picture of the speaker’s experience. Of course, this is not always easy as everyone has their own triggers and reactions. A nice tool to use for this concept is choosing sensitivity, which consists of acknowledging another person’s emotions by noticing how they appear to be feeling and then asking about it.
Pausing to reflect before reacting to comments is another good way to avoid giving in to an emotional response as it invites understanding into a conversation. This may include trying not to immediately agree or disagree with someone as well as respecting their need for addressing problems by trying not to push too hard for resolution. The goal is to be responsive to the feelings of others without assuming what they will say or trying to guide the conversation to a solution.
Listening with these four concepts in mind will provide the best opportunity for getting the full picture of what someone is going through. The gift of our attention and understanding cannot be underestimated. When people feel heard and accepted, they are more likely to be productive and connected to others.
Good listeners benefit by feeling valued and they have a better understanding of the speaker’s perspective. To listen in a healthy way is to relinquish control of the relationship while also maintaining control of the self. It conveys care and respect without demanding agreement or requiring the listener to relax their boundaries. When we approach conversations with the goal of understanding the other person first, both sides win.
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