Today, my son broke his arm for the 3rd time (skateboarding). I had just heard the news from my husband (phoning from the hospital) when someone came to talk to me. After she told me what she had come to say, I told her my son had just broken his arm. She sympathised briefly then launched into a long story about when her son had broken his arm many years ago. She again briefly expressed sympathy and walked away.
This is a very typical way we “listen” to others. What we’ve told the person triggers their memories of when something similar happened to them. We don’t intend to “one-up” (e.g. that’s nothing, you should hear what happened to me!), but it’s habitual to go into our own experiences rather than staying present with the person who has shared something with us.
Another way we habitually “listen” is to reassure. We think we are comforting the person, but often reassurance isn’t really what the person wants in that moment. Reassurance can also be heard as “you are wrong” or “your feelings aren’t valid”. For example, a friend might say to you “I feel like such an idiot” and you reply “I don’t think you’re an idiot.” or “Don’t be silly!”.
So what do we want when we speak to people? Unless we are making a specific request for someone’s opinion, experience or advice, usually we just want to be heard, deeply heard. Deep listening requires being fully present and still. When someone is sharing something with you, try not to think how it relates to you or what it reminds you of or whether you agree with them or what’s wrong with them. It’s hard to keep our mind from engaging in the story that the person is telling and getting into the details and asking questions that keep them in the story, so I find it really helpful to think “what is she/he feeling right now? What does she/he need?”.
I’ve been working on my listening skills for a couple of years now and it’s so satisfying when people tell me they feel much better after talking to me. I haven’t done anything other than be present and try to reflect back what I understand of what they are saying and inside, to help myself stay focused, I’m guessing their feelings and needs.
I don’t listen well all the time – it’s a practice. It’s not easy to listen deeply, especially when we’re not centred and we’ve got a lot of our own stuff going on but it’s deeply satisfying when we do manage to listen well and help someone to feel better. Recently, a friend told me that what I did (listening to her) was almost like magic. I thought that was a bit sad because I wondered how often she really experiences being fully heard by friends or family.
I also love the philosophy that we have all the wisdom inside us to solve our own problems and grow. Most of the time, I just want to be heard. I don’t want advice or reassurance, to be told my feelings are wrong, justification, pity, diagnosis, analysis and I certainly don’t want to hear that you experienced the same thing only worse. I just want you to listen to me, to be fully present, and to love and accept me as I am at this moment without judgement and for you to try and feel what it feels like to be me in that moment. And in that space, I feel safe and I can slowly start to stretch my wings and try on new aspects of me.
Here’s Tich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful explanation of Deep Listening: