How to communicate effectively? For instance, when someone shares their pain or details of a personal difficulty with us, how do we respond in a helpful way? In a previous post, I explored how providing words of wisdom is not helpful in all situations. For example, the saying, “time heals all wounds,” could sound helpful to one but cliché to another grieving person. But what else can one do?
Be silent. And listen.
Silence is not the opposite of offering a wise saying. Silence itself can be wise. You may be surprised to learn there are periods of silence in therapy too—when the patient is silent and the therapist wisely chooses not to break the silence. Therapists use silence for a variety of purposes: To promote “reflection, encourage responsibility, facilitate the expression of feelings, not interrupt session flow, and convey empathy.”
Not making too many assumptions
On an intellectual level, many of us are aware of the need for improving our listening skills. We know we need to really understand another person before offering any advice. We realize the person speaking to us might experience situations differently than we do, even if the speaker is dealing with the same situation we have dealt with before (e.g., financial problems, divorce, illness, getting laid off, the loss of a loved one).
Indeed, how a problem (e.g., divorce) is perceived or how it influences different people depends on numerous factors—genetics, age, sex/gender, upbringing, personality, intelligence, education, health, wealth, social class, culture, ethnicity, nationality, values, religion, current circumstances, goals and dreams, and others.
Yet, we seem to forget all this when listening to a person talk. Only a minute into it and we have already formed an opinion and can’t wait to jump in with our suggestions and advice about what they should do. Some of us who think of ourselves as good listeners are not much different; we only listen initially, and once we have formed an opinion, we ignore the rest of what we are hearing. We nod and smile but have essentially tuned out the speaker and are waiting politely till it is our turn to talk and offer our brilliant advice.
Nevertheless, good listening skills include more than just learning to be quiet, nodding at the right time, and trying not to interrupt. Good listening is about being open to hearing something new, as though we have no idea what we might hear or where the conversation is going.
Paying attention to everything
Good listening also means using our other senses.
Many of us have experienced something similar to the following situation: We ask a person how things are and the person looks at us with anger in their eyes, tension in their voice, arms folded across the chest and shoulders shrugged, and says, “Everything’s fine.”
But we doubt they are fine because we have paid attention to the individual’s body language. Therefore, when you listen, it helps to pay attention to the person’s posture, tone of voice, gestures, etc.
There are many books on body language. However, some books oversimplify the complexities of body language. For example, they suggest a particular defensive posture always indicates the presence of a specific emotional reaction (e.g., fear). However, a person may habitually, or because of chronic pain in a part of their body, stand in a certain “defensive” way; unless you know the individual well, you might misattribute the posture to psychological causes.
In short, when you are listening to someone, pay attention to their body language as well, but do not overinterpret body language.
One last thing: Pay attention to your own body language too when you listen to someone. When you are listening, you are not just sitting there quietly; you are communicating—for instance, communicating your understanding, interest, empathy, and compassion (or your discomfort, boredom, and disinterest). So be mindful of the messages you are sending. Remember, listening is an active process, and requires attention and focus. You can make it even more active, as I will explain in my next post, by asking questions and providing validation and advice.