When do we really listen?

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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:

 

8 thoughts on “When do we really listen?

  1. I love this. You are so right; I am often prompted to share one of my experiences when someone tells me theirs. I don’t see this as ‘one up’ but as sharing, but your story makes me realise it may not be nearly as interesting to the other person as it is to me at that time, as they may not need to hear that others have had similar experiences. Just to hear, as you say, that they are heard, accepted and loved.

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  2. Hi Christina, thank you for your comment. I think it can be helpful if you feel something in your experience might help the other person to move forward when they are stuck but only after they’ve been fully heard. And we can preface it with “I had a similar experience. I wonder if you’d like to hear what helped me in that situation?”. I didn’t really mind hearing my colleague’s story but she wasn’t telling it to benefit me (other than maybe “I’ve been there too”) and of course she wasn’t telling me to “one-up” but I think it was just an unconscious response because my telling her what happened triggered her memory and she wasn’t at all conscious of tuning in to me to see how I was feeling about my son’s broken arm.

    I suspect we are all so starved of being deeply heard that many of our memories are not finalised – we haven’t processed the experience through to completion (especially traumatic memories). So when someone tells us something that triggers one of our memories, that’s what comes alive for us – the unfinalised memory of what happened to us and that’s what we go into, thereby losing consciousness (presence) of the person we are “listening” to.

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  3. Yes, I’m sure it’s true, we have so many unfinished memories, especially the traumatic ones. Interestingly, for me, now I don’t often tell my traumatic stories to friends; rarely, in fact. I think that’s because I’ve written them in different ways, shared them with audiences both orally and in writing, and to a large extent, I think, worked through them and released them. I used to think it was the most significant thing about me. Now it is part of my past, not an active, living part of me now. And yes, sometimes it is appropriate to share if you feel it might help the person see things a little differently, but again, you are right, it should only be if they are fully heard, and it is a good idea, as you suggest, to ask their permission. Though that might surprise them, as (in my experience) it’s not usual for people to do this!

    It is, as you say, a daily practice.

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  4. And it depends too on the situation and why someone is telling you something. If it’s a group of friends sitting around sharing stories, I think it’s entirely appropriate to share experiences but if it’s a friend who is sharing something that is troubling them or has been traumatic for them, then I think it’s helpful to pause, ask myself why they are telling me (usually they just want to be heard) and try to be quietly present. It’s just our minds are so busy and love any trigger that gets the chatter going. You’re right, it’s not usual for people to ask if you’d like to hear your experience but in my experience, when people have asked me, it’s been a pleasant surprise – it feels respectful and gentle and then I’m much readier to hear what they’ve got to say as well – it gives me a moment to stop my chatter and be present to what they’ve got to say.

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    1. Good points, about the difference between friends’ conversation and a ‘therapeutic’ one (which doesn’t necessarily mean you’re playing therapist, but that the speaker finds (or seeks) healing in talking about it.

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  5. Enjoyed the post, Filippa. Thank you. It comes at a time when I’ve been trying to remember some things I once knew about being present to people. Such a useful post. And i enjoyed reading your discussion with Christina, as well.

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  6. Thank you Maureen. When I first learnt about all the ways we “listen” (not) to each other, I was quite shocked. It was at my first NVC (nonviolent communication) workshop. One person talked about something that was going on in her life and then each person in the group responded according to a cue card. We were prompted to “one-up”, pity, ask lots of irrelevant questions, get really emotionally involved in the story (e.g. get really angry on behalf of the person), contradict, and so on. I just sat there thinking, “oh my god. this is how we all listen to each other!”. And of course, when asked for feedback about how she felt, the person telling her story didn’t feel at all satisfied with how she had been “listened” to. The more I try and listen in stillness and presence, the better it seems to feel for both me and the person telling their story. Anyway, thanks for reading and I’m so glad you found this post useful. 🙂

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