How to really listen to the people in your life
We all know who the good and bad listeners are in our life. Think about it. When
something big and tough is happening in your world, who are the people that you
want to pick up the phone and call? And, alternatively, who are the people that you
know won’t give you what you need?
You might have heard of the superiority bias which refers to the fact that a majority of
us, in many different settings, tend to believe that we are above average compared
to the rest of the population. (Alicke & Govorun, 2005) Yet of course that’s not possible, because by virtue of the definition of average, 50% of us must in fact be below average. Well, listening can be a bit the same. We all seem to think that we are great listeners; that it’s a natural and easy skill.
But the truth is, listening properly and deeply to another
human being doesn’t just happen on its own. It’s a conscious choice and it requires a high level of attention and presence.
Being a psychologist comes with some funny reactions when I tell people what I do.
One of the most common is something along the lines of “OMG, I better be careful
what I say, don’t start analysing me”. And I always respond in the same way: “Are
you kidding? It takes a lot of energy and concentration to be present in that way with
another person. I can assure you I’m not doing that in my personal life!”
So what does it require to really listen to another person – particularly when they are
stressed or overwhelmed - and to make sure that not only are you listening, but that
the other person is feeling heard?
Here are my top tips.
Stop interrupting. No matter how important you think what you have to say is, and how urgent it might be to get it out immediately, just wait. Wait a bit longer than you usually would. Let the other person finish talking before you start. Hey, even wait a few seconds after they’ve finished talking before you start. Fascinating things can happen in that space.
Remember that you don’t have to fix the problem. When people are going through hard times, as difficult as it is to admit it, sometimes there is no solution. Sometimes there’s nothing anyone can do to make it better, or change it. And focusing on what the other person could do, or your ideas on what would help, can often feel simplistic and invalidating. Focus on listening and forget about fixing.
Don’t underestimate the power of empathy. Sometimes if we take away the role of trying to come up with a solution, we can feel like we’re not actually doing anything. And this is where it’s vital to remember that really hearing what’s going on for another person – and making that your fundamental goal – is incredibly powerful. In fact, research shows that simply the experience of being heard and understood; the sense of someone witnessing what you are going through, can decrease symptoms of depression in and of itself.
Don’t try to find a silver lining. And don’t ever start a sentence with “At least…”. When we try to put a positive spin on a conversation (even if there genuinely is a positive outcome buried somewhere deep in the middle of a crappy situation) we take the focus away from the hard parts and the opportunity to validate an individual’s reaction to those hard parts.
Try not to bring the conversation back to you. As tempting as it might be to bring up a similar situation that you’ve been in, deep listening is about giving the other person the floor. It’s about allowing them to take up the space, and to tell you what it’s like for them. Rarely do two people react in the same way even when external circumstances are identical. So keep an open mind and try to hold the possibility that you actually might not know exactly how the other person is feeling.
Don’t worry too much about the previous five points. This might sound counterintuitive, but worrying too much about getting it ‘right’ will actually stop you from being present. Psychological research has shown that one of the most important aspects of therapy is the sense of genuineness in the therapist. That is, if you’re not being yourself, and you’re too hung up on trying to get the listening ‘perfect’, you’ll lose the human element that is so important for connection. So, if you find yourself accidentally focussing on a positive outcome, or interrupting the other person, or mentioning a possible solution, it’s not the end of the world. Just take a breath and have another go. After all, this isn’t a therapy session, it’s a chat between friends or family.
The beauty of all of this, is that you can experiment with it in your day-to-day life –
there are so many opportunities to practice! Try it with your kids, with your parents,
with your partner or with your work colleagues. The more you experiment with it, the
more you’ll sharpen your awareness of what gets in the way for you specifically,
because it’s different for all of us. And fingers crossed, someone in your life also
finds their way to this article to you get to reap the benefits too! :)
Mark D. Alicke; Olesya Govorun (2005). The Better-Than-Average Effect". In Mark D. Alicke; David A. Dunning; Joachim I. Krueger. The Self in Social Judgment. Studies in Self and Identity.Psychology Press. pp. 85–106.
Dr Rony Duncan is a Clinical Psychologist who works at the Eve Wellness Co. in Brunswick and Melbourne Psychology and Counselling in Coburg.
Rony also teaches counselling skills at The University of Melbourne.