I wrote this article a few years ago and didn't make use of it. I re-read it today and although I like it I am disturbed by how challenging it is for me to put it into practice for myself.
I wonder how come I can sometimes see things clearly for other people and then am unable to see the very same things playing out in myself.
In order to listen well the initial requirement is that you have the time and energy to be listening at that moment. If you want to be somewhere else or doing something different then you won’t be listening.
You need to be clear with yourself about whether now is a good time. If it isn’t you will need to manage yourself and the other person by saying something like “I am too busy (distracted/angry/upset/tired) to pay good attention now, please wait for 5 minutes (10mins/20mins/2 days) and I will come back to you and then we can talk about this”.
Although this may not always gain you the space you need on some occasions this type of approach will work and later you can come back and listen carefully.
A lot of information about ‘good’ listening is mainly to do with things that are practical
Good listening should include
- Finding an appropriate location with no distractions
- Making good eye contact – paying attention
- Nodding and giving lots of non-verbal encouragement
- Reassuring the speaker
- Showing that you are listening
- Summarising and asking questions about their experience
- Allowing them to pause
- Making an appropriate response
Bad listening may include
- Interrupting the speaker
- Not looking at them
- Rushing them and making them feel that they are wasting your time
- Being distracted
- Getting ahead of the speaker and finishing their thoughts
- Not respond to their requests
- Topping their story with "That reminds me. . ."
- Asking too many questions about details.
- Not taking them seriously
Listening is also affected by wider and less practical issues.
- What you and the other person are feeling and might want to happen.
- What is the mood or atmosphere surrounding the conversation?
- What has been going on before the conversation happened?
- What is the general state of your relationship with this person?
All of these factors will have an influence on what is said, how it is said and how you both feel before, during and after the conversation.
In order to improve your listening skills you need to pay attention to these internal and external factors.
As with any skill we get better with practice. No-one is a perfect listener but by paying attention to our skills we improve. A simple thing to try is summarising. When someone says something in a complex or difficult conversation, before you answer them try saying ‘let me just check that I am understanding you clearly, the things that are really important to you here are……….’
When someone pushes at us physically or verbally we can tend to immediately push back at them. This creates a situation that is like a pantomime version of ‘oh yes you did’ ….’oh no I didn’t’.
If you are able to summarise it can break this cycle because you are not pushing back, rather you are demonstrating that you accept what they say and want to hear more in order to really get a picture of what is going on.
You can also impact on the atmosphere around a conversation if you are prepared to look at what is going on inside you.
To do this it is helpful to think about the difference between a reaction and a response.
A reaction is what happens when we receive a stimulus and we are pushed into doing something without really thinking about it. This is a fight, flight or freeze reaction. Our body does something and it seems like our mind has been left out of the equation.
You discover that your favourite mug at home has been broken. You may have reactions to this that might include shock, anger and tears.
You may go looking for the person who you think broke it and shout and scream at them. At some point you will notice that you are caught in a process of reaction and you may remember to breathe.
With the breath you start to move towards a response and you will start to have some choices in what you do or say.
You may still be furious, you might still choose to shout at the person, but what is important is that this is now a choice (a response) rather than a reaction.
In terms of helping and supporting a difficult situation we are better equipped when we are responding because we have options. When reacting, the issue of options doesn’t exist – we are just caught up in whatever is happening to us.
Shifting from reaction to response
Time helps and if we have had a strong reaction we can later come back and apologise or make amends. It is more difficult to switch from reaction to response when caught in the midst of a difficult situation. Things that can help are
- Being able to notice that you are having a reaction
- Shifting your posture or moving your body
- Taking some type of internal pause
- Taking a breath
- Breaking or making eye contact
- Paying attention to yourself – asking “Who am I and where am I within this situation?”
- Playing a different tape – changing what you are saying to yourself
- Giving good attention to the speaker – letting them know that you are listening and want to hear and understand them
- Remembering that what comes out of someone’s mouth is often only a part of what is going on. It may be the part that they feel able to express
- Emotions are just emotions – the person has some feelings. If they are angry or crying this is a signal that they have some type of unmet need. It is a sign to you to explore further to try and uncover what the need might be.
- Sometimes just staying quiet – in a non-threatening way can help them and you to think and you to get more balanced
It is okay to ask for time out. Some people naturally do this by taking themselves away from a difficult or painful conversation. This can be tough for those of us who like to deal with the issue here and now, but this will be impossible to do with someone who needs the time to cool down.
Good skills will help but by themselves they are not the answer.
The essence of good listening is about integrity… the need for a consistency between what we are thinking, what we are saying, how our bodies are communicating, what we are feeling, and the deeper values within our heart.