What it means to listen and to hear

When I was young, If you had asked me what it meant to listen to someone else, and I thought about it deeply, I imagine that my younger self would have told you that listening means being quiet, and listening means obedience.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, and yet I have a suspicion that I’m not alone in my early misunderstanding.

Because who asks us to listen when we are a kid?

Our parents, teachers, and other people whose jobs include molding our behavior.

My experience as a child was that adults wanted me to listen to them so that they can convey information which is designed to get me to behave in a particular way.

And yet as I think back, I realize that there were undoubtedly times, particularly with friends, where I was being told something with no more desire than for the speaker to feel heard.

And for a long time, I didn’t understand how to do that.

What we do when we think we are listening

So many of us believe we are listening and yet our actions suggest the very opposite. We commit these errors, over and over again:

  • We give advice.
  • We predict the future.
  • We relate a person’s words back to a story about ourselves.
  • We sympathize or console.
  • We interrogate.
  • We argue or get defensive.

There are so many ways in which can fail to hear one another, I can barely count them all. (For a list of 10 common ways, check out this piece on empathic listening.)

Why do we do this?

In an article in Harvard Business Review, Peter Bregman argues that truly listening can feel risky, because we might hear something we don’t want to hear.

Maybe a family member shares with us that they are feeling sad, and instead of digging in with questions, we tell them all the things they have to feel grateful for.

This reaction is not listening, and it belies a fear of learning the root of what’s being expressed, perhaps due to the impact that might have on us, the listener.

What does it mean to truly listen and hear?

Can you think back to a time when you felt truly listened to?

Perhaps it was by a family member, or a friend. Or maybe it was a professional, like a therapist.

Being truly heard feels amazing.

Being truly heard allows a person to calm down if they are upset. Truly listening can literally diffuse and prevent violence.

So how do we listen and allow someone to feel heard?

There are two critical components:

  1. Reflect back what the speaker is telling you.

“You’re feeling sad right now.”

“Coming downstairs in the morning to dirty dishes in the sink makes you feel upset.”

“You wanted to finish your dinner before mommy got up from the table.”

This may seem awkward at first, and yet it’s a critical step to check for understanding. Repeating back (and it doesn’t have to be the exact same words, but should be close) not only helps us know that we’ve heard correctly, but also allows the other person to understand that we’re receiving them.

 2. Ask Questions

“Are you feeling frustrated right now because the traffic is heavy and it could make us late for the meeting with our clients?”

“Are you feeling mad because it’s time to put the toys away?”

“Will you tell me more about that? I’d like to make sure I understand.” (Be careful with this one. When it’s said in the spirit of truly understanding where the person is coming from, it works. When not, it comes off as an interrogation or worse, as arguing.)

Listening in this way can feel uncomfortable at first. And yet isn’t that the case when we try anything new? The more you practice, the more natural it will become. And listening with the full intention of hearing the other person is giving them a rare gift.

Don’t the people in your life deserve this?

We all deserve this.

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