In this time of poor communication, how can we become expert listeners? Remember that you may be the first to hear someone's story - how bloody powerful is that? Also how detrimental, therefore, could it be if we get it wrong.
By listening we validate that a story is worthwhile, by listening we offer a soundboard for a person to hear themselves.
When we consider the difference between sympathy and empathy it helps us to frame the skill set we might need to be a good listener;
Sympathy is saying to someone who has revealed they are an alcoholic, ‘at least you're not a meth addict’ or ‘well sometimes I feel like that too’. Empathy is saying I’m hearing this must be really difficult for you, I’m going to do my best to understand and be with you’.
Empathy ignites connection whereas sympathy causes disconnection. The research behind this (1) evidences that good empaths will try and wear your shoes, but acknowledge they cannot know how you feel. Sympaths try to fix you and know exactly the best way out of your situation - because they have done it all before.
So now we have framed the mindset how do we appear to deliver listening purposefully? A key way of tapping into your good listening skills is to consider a time when you have been poorly listened to and how shit that felt - we’ve all been there.
Remember most of what we read from a person is actually in their non-verbal communication (2).
So body language is so, so important.
Engage the person in discussing how they are feeling/notice what their body language tells you about how they feel.
Focus on feelings, thoughts and experiences/notice how their thoughts are commanding how they feel currently and in turn the experience they are having (harking back to the hot cross bun of CBT).
Express concerns respectfully without being judgemental/show you care by listening DO NOT patronise by suggesting how this has/would/might affect you as everyone experiences things differently.
Avoid expressing negative judgements or reactions/if you know might be hearing some tough information try to prepare yourself to avoid looking shocked, there is nothing worse than seeing that face that says ‘my god love you are in the shit’.
Silence is powerful, but it can be helpful to encourage with simple phrases:
“I’m sorry to hear that you feel that way, it sounds very painful”
“I’m listening to you and I really want you to keep talking to me”
“You were saying that you felt…” (to prompt further talk) - summarisation
Non-verbally in times of silence, we can use:
Small nods and sounds of agreement and encouragement- ‘hmmm, uh huh’ - think Mr Bean.
But remember that silence itself can be very supportive, I have often thought to myself as a practitioner ‘wow I’m getting paid to sit here and nod at you', jokes aside it seems to be working out so far. We get taught how to read, write, speak even speak different languages, but never to listen so it is easy to under-appreciate this talent.
Some misconceptions in good listening include;
Having to have direct eye contact; actually, this can come off as too dominant - you wouldn’t stare a maltreated dog in the eye. I was going to insert a reference here, but I feel knowing that there is a website called ‘the art of manliness’ that persuades its readers to own the room through manly eye contact is enough to evidence this animalistic concept. Please don’t give them internet traffic and note dominance isn’t a man only trait.
Good seating positions; whilst this can be beneficial interestingly research shows us not having eye contact through the use of a ‘walk and talk’ instead can be better, especially for men (3). This is largely because women are innately built to sit and talk/gesticulate with children and so naturally become comfortable with it. If someone is comfortable to sit, a two-chair diagonal seated position is a great way of having informal eye contact.
Body contact; if someone is pacing in a stressed way it doesn’t take a rocket scientist or indeed a psychologist to point out rugby tackling them into a seat isn’t going to work. Interestingly however many of us forget, even in times of distress, many individuals will not appreciate a hug or any kind of touch (dependant on the relationship obviously, as consensual sex is a great stress burner). Moreover adopting a relaxed seating position yourself is often enough to deescalate a situation, as others will mirror your body language and follow suit.
Having to listen RIGHT NOW; actually, there is nothing more unnerving than somebody committing to listen and then becoming anxious themselves as they have a meeting in 5 minutes. It is better (unless during a crisis) to postpone and pencil in a good amount of time to listen.
To summarise I invite you to watch this cracking video by Jason Headley.
Peace out, Becky xxx
Brown, B (2012) Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
Burgoon, J (1985) The relationship of verbal and nonverbal codes.
Berkowitz, D., Manohar, N. N., & Tinkler, J. E. (2010). Walk Like a Man, Talk Like a Woman: Teaching the Social Construction of Gender. Teaching Sociology, 38(2), 132–143. https://doi.org/10.1177/0092055X10364015