Did you ever get that feeling when you were telling someone something important, that they were more interested in telling you their experience rather than hearing you out? So often, a listener will interject in the flow of your story to tell you their experience or to try to fix your problem. If I reflect on times that this has happened to me, I recall that I have walked away feeling unheard and unsatisfied by the interaction. And certainly no closer to a resolution. As the speaker, that’s not what I need. As the speaker I need to feel heard, particularly if I’m telling the listener about a problem that I have.
I don’t suggest in any way that our friends and family members don’t mean well when they interrupt with advice or relate it to their own experiences. Really I think that this is what we, as humans, are conditioned to do. But our evolutionary and societal conditioning doesn’t always point us in the right direction. Being a good listener is rarely something that is innate in a person and is something that must be learnt. My experience tells me that it is actually quite a simple thing to do, and the results can be spectacular. Truly listening to your partner or friend or family member will result in increased connection between you. The speaker feels heard and understood and the listener understands the needs of the speaker.
I’m a huge fan of Mark Groves (on Instagram as @createthelove) and his no nonsense advice on relationships. Grovesy (as I tend to call him!) recently posted his thoughts on this. He said, that next time your partner is venting, try asking “Do you want me to help you, or just listen?” I think this is a potentially relationship-changing idea. Us men so often want to fix things for their partners – but I’m told it’s not just the guys doing it. We don’t like seeing our partner or friend in pain of any kind, so our natural response is to try to fix it. I can say without reservation that this was once my default position too. But the person sharing their problem often wants nothing more than to be heard. So, if the answer to Grovesy’s question is “just listen”, then we need to think about what’s important when we’re doing this.
I have come across a range of terms and approaches to doing this: mindful listening, active listening, and reflective listening. There are even many more – a quick Google search will affirm this – and similar strategies are employed by psychologists and similar practitioners the world over. Reflective listening is achieved by demonstrating empathy to the speaker, by returning what you have heard with genuine understanding. It isn’t simply a matter of parroting what they have said, but rather by providing them with affirmation and reflecting back to them your acceptance and understanding of what has been shared. The key here is being genuine and truly empathic. Putting yourself in their shoes to give your response.
By nature, my blog won’t allow me to go into significant detail with this, but I would like to share my experiences, having put this into practice myself. Rather than telling you a story that will give a little too much away about people in my life who haven’t given me permission to share, I’d like to tell you how it made me, the listener, feel, and what happened in those relationships or friendships.
Essentially, by focussing upon the content of what I was hearing, I felt as though I understood what was going on for that person. When it came time to respond, I felt able to summarise what had been said and name the feelings that were expressed. And the simple result is a deepened connection. When someone feels heard, they feel calmer and they feel encouraged. Encouraged to share again at another time. Feeling like it’s ok to share in a relationship without judgement is central to developing a secure and communicative partnership. And of course an indescribable connection.
So, how do you go about this? I’ll share a few simple steps here.
- Be present and free of distractions like TV or your phones.
- Focus on understanding the content of what is being said without judgement.
- Try to remain calm, even if the content is uncomfortable or emotional.
- Affirm by nodding or saying ‘yes’ or similar.
- At an appropriate time, reflect back to them what you have heard.
The reflection here is the part that is the most difficult and probably the thing that will take the most effort on your part. But it is also what will provide a positive effect for the speaker – if you can do it well. Give it back to them in your own words and sentence structure, ensuring that you don’t judge. Try framing your reflection by starting with something like “I’m hearing that …” Ask if what you have reflected is correct. But one of the keys to an effective reflection is to support your partner or friend in naming the emotions they are feeling. By putting a label on the emotions, it helps us to observe what’s happening for us and to see a path forward – often this is the hardest thing to do when we are experiencing a speed hump in life.
I clearly can’t give you an entire course on reflective listening here, but I can encourage you to read further and give it a go yourself if this resonates with you. I think the following links provide a few great thoughts around reflective listening and just listening in general. The articles are from Psychology Today, and I think they give a great blend of tips and reasoning to give it a try. I hope you have some success with this too!