Do you feel alone? I mean really alone. You could be the most popular, have a calendar busting full of events, and barely have any time to yourself, but do you somehow amidst all this feel alone? There is something deep within us that cries out for connection and validation. It is a need to be seen, heard, and understood. It is a need to be known and to be valued. We pursue this in various ways and unfortunately it is oftentimes done in ways that hurt us. Our emotions can easily overpower the self, cloud our judgment, and distract us from what our hearts actually need. It is our human need to be understood for who we are. This need can be met through having another listen to what is on our hearts. It allows us to process what we think and feel, which enables us to know ourselves more deeply. It reinforces our sense of self and worth. Human connection is a beautiful thing and yet so often relationships neglect this need to be understood that each of us have deep within us.
As much as we each have this need within us so does the next person. Listening is a lost art because we each become fixated on our own need, especially during heated moments of conflict. We lose sight of the importance of recognizing and affirming the other person’s world of knowledge and feelings. We fail to acknowledge they are worthwhile. This poisons our relationships.
I’ll be very honest. I was guilty of having believed I was good at listening. I used to think that if people confided in me and shared their personal stories I must be a good listener! Then I began to realize I had it all wrong. Hearing another person’s story, offering advice, and giving them a comforting hug didn’t quite cut it. I realized that listening goes deeper than that. I was not offering those I care about what I could be offering them. I had a greater ability deep within me. To love. This was an area where I had been cutting others short. I learned that my own human need to be understood does not override any other person’s need to be understood. Once my selfish heart could accept this during moments of conflict I began to gain ground of conquering my emotions and acting upon my will to love others more profoundly. I was able to truly listen to their hearts. I was able to fill their need to be understood. I also learned that this was the fastest and surest way to diffuse any conflict in my relationships. My relationships began to transform.
I encourage each of you to ask yourselves these 9 questions that I asked myself. They served me as a doorway to a deeper understanding of authentic listening and allowed my relationships to bloom. I was then able to experience a deeper and lasting connection with others that I could build upon. To build beautiful bonds with those in your life listening must never be absent.
DO YOU VALUE THE OTHER’S NEED TO BE UNDERSTOOD? Emotions are often driven by a person’s need to be understood. Whether this is during a breakdown in tears, an angry outburst, a lengthy rant after a hellish day at work, or just a chat with a friend, we are driven by this need to be understood. Think back to the last time you explained yourself to someone you care about and they didn’t listen. It probably hurt. It definitely hurt if it was someone you had counted on to understand you. Most of us don’t consider how much we yearn to be understood and how much being understood or misunderstood affects us. Valuing the other’s need to be understood is important. Let’s not neglect them. Let’s be willing to open ourselves up to understand them. Let’s reinforce their sense of self and worth by valuing their need to be understood and listening to what is on their heart.
DO YOU APPRECIATE THE OTHER’S POINT OF VIEW? This can be challenging during a heated discussion when you know you’re right and your emotions are brewing ready to boil over. Remember that they know they’re right, too. As strongly as you feel about your views on the matter, the other person feels just as strongly and probably has a mile long list of “facts” to back up their argument. So before we whip out our emotional battleaxe, we need to take a deep breath and acknowledge that they need their opinion respected just as much as we need ours. Learning to appreciate the other person’s perspective will do wonders in our relationships. They have mine. Practice empathy. As tough as it is to swallow pride, our relationships must be worth more to us if we want them to flourish. Empathy is the crown jewel to listening, and I promise you, once you empathize, things will simmer down pretty quickly and the other person will even want to empathize too. Empathy begins with opening ourselves up to another’s feelings. As hard as it is to believe we must remember their motive is not to hurt us, but to be understood.
DO YOU SUBMERGE INTO THEIR EXPERIENCE? To genuinely listen to someone we must bear witness to their world, step out of our own, and into theirs. Basically, forget about ourselves for a moment, and be fully attentive to another’s feelings and need for attention. Everyone needs some bit of attention to sustain themselves emotionally. It’s nourishing. I’m not going to get into all the nitty-gritty details of healthy and unhealthy attention, but the point is, by putting the other’s need to be understood at our best interest, we can forget about ourselves and submerge into their experience to share what they feel. By sharing what they are going through, acknowledges that their feelings are valid and they matter. We all know we matter. We just want someone else to think so too. Let’s open ourselves up and prove they matter to us. Stand in their shoes.
ARE YOU KEEPING YOUR MIND FREE FROM PLANNED REBUTTALS? If we are coming up with a creative response while the other person is talking, we’re not listening. Most of us, especially during a conflict, are guilty of forming a rebuttal while the other person is talking. We think we’re listening by hearing their side, but doing so while silently strategizing our next line of defense is not listening. It’s battling. This is destructive in any relationship. To truly listen we must detox our mind and leave it open to fully absorb the other’s world of perspective.
ARE YOU FIRST OFFERING ACKNOWLEDGEMENT INSTEAD OF REASSURANCE? Although reassurance can be beneficial, there is a time and place for it, and that is not when we are trying to listen. We all may have great intentions when we rush to reassure someone as they’re confiding in us, yet we fail to acknowledge what really matters here, and it is that their emotions are in need of process and acknowledgment. I know most of us would like to think that we understand their feelings and that is why we offer reassurance. When reassuring someone we hope to fix those negative feelings that are overwhelming them by throwing positive ones at them, but in reality we’re really not fixing anything. We add more to their stress by not allowing their feelings to be heard. We’re neglecting these.
Let’s dig a little deeper so we can understand this better. When someone is experiencing anxiety and is spilling all their worries onto us we feel a sense of anxiety too. We start to feel uncomfortable and restless because we now feel pressured to relieve them of their stress and fix everything. (Unfortunately we’re not all Superman.) So what do we tend to do? We reassure as a means to quench the anxiety. What we actually need to do is accept the way they feel. Acknowledge it. Just by letting the other be heard and accepting their experience relieves a lot of anxiety. They need our acknowledgment first before moving on from there.
6. DO YOU ENCOURAGE THE OTHER TO ELABORATE ON THEIR EXPERIENCE? When someone confides in us we often hurry to share a similar experience as a means to show the speaker we understand and can relate. I know I take the cake with this one for sure! Unfortunately, jumping in with a story of our own does not make the other feel understood, but instead it makes them feel ignored, because that is exactly what we are doing (unintentionally of course). Instead of keeping our focus on the information they are sharing with us, we tend to shift the attention onto ourselves and put all the focus suddenly on our experience, rather than their experience we hadn’t finished discussing. Kind of rude, huh?
(Funny story insert: A couple weeks ago I was discussing authentic listening with a friend and he ironically brought up what it’s like for him when people interrupt with their own related stories before he’s finished talking and how it makes him feel like they’re not listening. I became so excited that he brought this concept up that before he even got out half of what he wanted to say, I blurted out, “OH MY GOSH me too! That happens to me all the time! Like just the other day...” There was a moment of silence. We both looked at each other. We then burst out laughing). You get the picture. It’s important to remember, when sharpening our listening skills, to keep the attention on what they are expressing. Encourage them to elaborate on their experience. Watch their face brighten up when you take (not just show) interest in their story. (And please don’t do what I did. It’s embarrassing. Baby steps, right?)
7. ARE YOU EMOTIONALLY REACTIVE? I’m going to answer that for you. Yes. You are. I am too. We all are. We all struggle with this and it is a huge listening barrier. When the speaker says something that triggers an emotion within us, it is almost instinct of us to jump to our own defense (Most often during criticism). Whether this is through anger, fear, hurt, or anxiety, it chokes the chance for understanding to take place. We react with our emotions because, well, we don’t know what else to do with them so we fling them at the fan and hope for the best! I think most of us can agree that usually doesn’t end well. Reacting emotionally is the leading reason why conversations turn into arguments. Maybe it’s time we try to care for our relationships a little bit better and have effective communication. Avoid a defensive response by concentrating on listening more intently. Empathy is once again our answer!
8. DO YOU DOUBLE CHECK TO MAKE SURE YOU UNDERSTAND? An awful tendency most, if not all, of us do is to assume what the other person is going to say, which directly influences our attitude and behavior (and how we view this person). This typically happens in long-term relationships where you think you know someone inside out. I hate to crush your childhood dreams but you were not given super powers. You cannot read minds, no matter how much you think you can (I know, The Little Engine That Could was a favorite of mine too). People will surprise you no matter how long you have known them. We need to try to not assume what the other is thinking, feeling, or going to say and let them say what they’re going to say, without expectation or judgment. What we also must do, is after the other has finishing speaking, make sure we understood their message by rephrasing what they are experiencing in our own words. If you are spot on then congratulations. I hand you the listening award!
9. DO YOU LISTEN TO WHAT THE OTHER IS TRYING TO EXPRESS RATHER THAN WHAT THEY ARE SAYING? Easier said than done, especially when being berated by someone who's angry. If you focus on listening to the underlying message behind the words, you will be able to recognize what they really feel. You will begin to see the hurt behind the anger or the fear behind the rambling or the resentment behind the withdrawn. It is important to not get caught up on the actual wording, but pay attention to what the other is trying to express. In other words, read between the lines.
What we all must remember is that listening is the key to successful and happy relationships, which is what we all desire. Listening is a gift we give. It is an expression of love we selflessly give to another. By being good listeners, by bearing witness, and by appreciating others, we will successfully help others feel heard and understood. For me, learning authentic listening really opened my eyes up to a lot (plenty of self-improvement that needed attention!). I still have a lot of learning to do, but I found that to engage emotionally and be open to another, to their mind and heart, to their dignity, and to their individuality that sets them apart so beautifully from every other human being, including myself, is most rewarding. It improved the relationships in my life profoundly. So try these 9 tips out yourself and see how it improves YOUR relationships!
In Dr. Michael P. Nichols’ words:
“The need to be known, to have our experience understood and accepted by someone who listens, is food and drink to the human heart.”