Most of us agree that good communication is essential for healthy relationships. However, when we think of communication, we often focus what we want to say, rather than the quality of attention we can offer the other person. Stephen Covey, author of the best-seller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, lists “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood” as Habit 5, and states that when we practice empathic listening, we are giving the other person “psychological air”, the priceless gift of being accepted, and help in clarifying what they’re really feeling, thinking, experiencing, and needing.
Some hints for effective listening:
1. Be attentive and curious. Focus whole-heartedly on the other person. Refrain from other activities. Really try to see the world through the other person’s eyes. Put yourself in their shoes.
2. Use an “open” body language. Without being intimidating, lean toward the person. Leaning back in your chair and putting up your legs might at times convey a sense of casualness and that you’re really settling in to listen. However, if you’re also folding your arms, turning away, or closing your eyes, you’re presenting a “closed” posture, which the other person can interpret as your tuning them out.
3. Notice the other person’s verbal and non-verbal communication. Yes, words are important, but so are vocal inflections and body language (see #2). For instance, if someone says, “I’m fine, no problem”, but they growl the words or slam the door, their non-verbal language is most likely telling a more truthful story than their statement.
4. Don’t try to fix the other person. It may be that they do want your advice, but your initial intention is to understand their perspective. So often our listening falls into one of four categories, says Covey:
a. We evaluate (form an opinion)
b. We probe (ask questions according to our own agenda)
c. We advise (provide guidance, grounded on our own experience)
d. We interpret (attempt to figure things out)
These responses all have their value, but first you want to demonstrate your acceptance of the other person’s experience.
5. Reflect back to the other person what you’re hearing. You can either state word for word what the other person has said or paraphrase. For instance, if your daughter tells you, “I hate going to summer camp!”, you can simply respond with, “You hate going to summer camp” – or you can answer, “You really dislike summer camp”. This may sound obvious, but people are so used to being given advice or hearing an opinion, that they are relieved when someone is just present and attuned to them.
6. State what you are seeing and experiencing in the other person. Comment on your overall impression of them, based on their non-verbal language and your hunches. For example, you could say, “You’re frowning. You seem discouraged.” Demonstrate that you are listening with your intuition as well as with your ears and eyes.
7. Do a reality check. Sometimes it’s not clear what the other person is thinking, feeling, or wanting. They may be in the process of figuring this out themselves. You can help them by admitting your uncertainty: “Let me see if I understand where you’re coming from. Please correct me if I’m wrong…” and then stating your impressions.
8. ‘Fess up. If you become distracted, are tired, or really don’t have time to offer your full attention at this moment, let the other person know. It’s better to be honest and plan another time to talk, when you can connect on a deeper level, than for the other person to see your eyes glaze over, you repeatedly yawn, or you glance repeatedly at your watch.
9. Don’t get defensive. It’s possible that the other person may say something that pushes your buttons. Perhaps they criticize you or state an opinion to which you are diametrically opposed. In such cases:
a. Look for the kernel of truth in their statement.
b. Once again, reflect what you’ve heard them say. Acknowledgment doesn’t equal agreement.
c. If you’re really fired up, take some slow, deep breaths. You don’t have to respond right away (and it’s probably safest not to, if you’re feeling triggered). You may even need to take a time-out by stating, “I hear what you’re saying, and I’d like some time to think about that. Let’s take a break and come back to this in a hour… a day…” (choose a definite time to follow up, so the other person doesn’t feel abandoned or rejected).
10. Ask how you can help. Once you’ve made it clear that you understand the other person’s point of view, ask what they would like from you. Maybe they just want a listening ear. Perhaps they do want some advice, information, or consolation. Whatever the case, by posing this question you once again show them that you’re interested in where they’re coming from, rather than imposing your agenda on them.
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