I Hear You: The Gift of Listening, by Rachel Stockton, LCSW
When was the last time that you really listened to someone? I mean actually gave your full attention and listened with interest, curiosity and an open mind, paying attention to meaning and body language and not just the spoken word? It sounds simple but, sadly, few people seem to feel genuinely heard.
As a therapist and patient advocate in a local hospital, I have become aware of the act of listening and its transformative power. I can’t tell you how many times my clients have shared stories about not feeling heard. They speak of feeling unimportant, ignored, even “invisible.” I find that the simple act of giving a person my undivided attention is often met with, “I feel better now that I’ve been heard,” or “Wow, it feels good to get that out and not have you try to talk over me.” When people don’t feel heard, it can lead to feelings of resentment, loneliness, and mistrust. Over time these feelings can erode a relationship and even lead to depression and anxiety. People long for the opportunity to share their stories and, when we listen, we validate their experience, we affirm their humanity, and we show them that they are valued.
Why is something so seemingly basic so difficult? In our increasingly complex world, technology often substitutes for face-to-face interaction. Even when we are in the presence of people, we can often be found looking at our iPhones for something more stimulating. We’ve all experienced a conversation interrupted by a text message or a new Facebook post. With all of the input that technology offers it becomes increasingly difficult to focus, let alone give your undivided attention to someone. It is especially challenging when we are struggling with our own emotional reaction to what is being said.
As difficult as it can be to really tune in and listen to another person, if you want to communicate effectively, it is vital that you first learn to listen. Listening well has many benefits and results in stronger relationships, less conflict and misunderstanding, and greater respect and cooperation. By practicing good listening in your home, you can help to nurture an environment of peace and mutual respect. With good listening, conflicts can be addressed and resolved before they fester into something that feels unmanageable. These skills can also help you in the workplace.
I have to admit, even though listening might be the very essence of my profession, I am sometimes guilty of being a poor listener. As a working mom (to both kids and dogs), life is busy and a sudden interruption from a kid who is upset about something might feel like an unwelcome distraction. Being a good listener requires patience and focus and, quite frankly, I am not always able to channel the right state of mind. What I have learned to do in these instances is to stop and assess the situation and decide whether I can give the issue my full attention. If not, it is probably a good idea to wait. I might say, “I really want to hear what you have to say. Can we sit down and talk about this in 20 minutes when I am done cooking dinner?” or “This sounds really important and I would like to wait to discuss it until I can give it my full attention.” I have found that my kids don’t mind waiting, as they know they will have their opportunity to be heard.
Skillful listening may be a natural skill for some people, but for many it is a learned behavior. So what does skilled listening look like? It might be easier to start with what it is not. Obviously, it is not looking at your phone (or anywhere else) when someone is speaking to you or interrupting. Less apparent, it is not “waiting to talk,” or forming a response while someone is still talking, offering advice (unless asked for), or telling someone what they need to do.
Skillful listening involves paying attention to both verbal and non-verbal communication with the intent of understanding meaning. There are a variety of techniques you can use to accomplish this. Reflecting or paraphrasing what has been said can ensure that you are in fact understanding. If you miss the mark, it gives the speaker the opportunity to clarify meaning. Conversely, if you’re right on, it is validating as it shows that you are listening and understanding, and it moves the conversation forward. Asking questions can also be an effective way to show interest and better understand what is being communicated. For example, “tell me more about that,” or “what was that like for you?” Also pay attention to what you are communicating with your body language. Does your posture show that you are interested in what is being said or do you appear closed or judgmental? By leaning forward, nodding, and reflecting the tone of the conversation in your facial expression, you show that you are actively engaged.
The sensation of being heard is a powerful experience and is at the very heart of human connection. Listening is an empathic response. It shows the speaker that they are important enough to warrant your attention and that you care what they have to say. Even more importantly, it sends the message that you value their humanity and their unique perspective, even if you disagree with it. Listening to others can be just as compelling as being listened to. It opens our minds to new ideas, and our hearts to new perspectives, allowing us to connect and empathize not just with the speaker but with everyone else in our lives. When we open our hearts and minds and really listen, we cannot help but feel compassion. And when we have compassion for others, we may see ourselves through more compassionate eyes as well. Simply put, listening is an act of generosity and is truly a gift.
The author, Rachel Stockton, is accepting new clients and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-272-6858 x703.