By Rory Scher, AMFT
It may be surprising to learn that listening doesn’t come naturally and is a lot tougher than we realize. Hearing the words being spoken—versus actively engaging in the conversation—are two different things with profoundly different outcomes. In other words, we probably aren’t as good at listening as we think we are if we aren’t putting in that extra effort.
We can become so eager to share our own ideas or feelings that we accidentally miss what the conversation is really about and how the other person is feeling. Some common mistakes are anticipating what the other person is going to say, thinking of what to say in response, and not asking enough questions about why this particular point or issue is important. Bottom line, wanting more to be understood—and not to also understand—is not listening. Assuming you already know what the other person is going to say is not listening. And while it can be difficult to suspend our assumptions long enough to really hear what the other person is saying, doing so is vital. We can’t be good listeners without seeing if our assumptions are even correct.
Curiosity makes a person a good listener. Holding off on your reaction in order to really understand what the other person is communicating is key. We can be so adamant the other person is wrong that we feel we must jump in right away with our point. Unfortunately, the effect of this is opposite of what we want. When we interrupt or jump to conclusions, the other person immediately feels invalidated and unheard.
Now you might be thinking that because the other person is wrong, you can’t just sit back and let them continue to be wrong. However, if you jump in before they believe you have given their point time for consideration or understand their feelings, suddenly your conversation is no longer about the issue at hand and it becomes a battle over “You don’t care about me” or “You always have to have it your way.” Basically, the other person ends up feeling like you didn’t really understand their point or feelings. And usually the points and feelings of other people actually do make sense if you listen carefully enough.
So how can you be a good listener? Before you share your thoughts, ask questions. People want to feel that their ideas and feelings are understood, and they can sense when we are listening and when we aren’t. When you become more concerned with understanding the logical and emotional points the other person is trying to convey—and you do need to understand both—over your own desire to share, then you will have mastered the art of listening. If you can’t repeat back to them the point they are trying to make and why it’s important, then you haven’t listened carefully enough. Ask! Tell them what you think they are saying and let them give you a yes or a no regarding your understanding. If it’s a yes, then respond with your idea, and if it’s a no, then you need more information. Whether it’s a spouse, a teen, a friend, or a coworker, really listening will help you avoid miscommunication and feel more deeply connected.
Listening is difficult. But when you begin to truly listen, you may be surprised by what you end up learning about other people as well as yourself.