There’s a little secret tool you have that can make your relationships happier, stronger, and healthier. Sounds too good to be true, right? Wrong. It’s called listening. And it’s not something most of us do well.
Listening isn’t one of my strengths.
I’m the WORST at listening. Ok, that’s called “awfulizing,” but at the very least listening is not my strength. I’m passionate, compassionate, generous and curious, but I definitely need to improve my listening skills. And I’m working on it. I’m taking a counseling course that most of this information is from, and I’m already noticing changes in my relationships! I feel more connected to the people I love. I remember more about their lives, and feel more generous and less selfish.
Active and Empathic Listening
Listening can take many forms, but it’s most powerful version is active and empathic listening.
There’s this thing that Irish people do. The first few times it happened, I was so startled I lost my train of thought and had to regroup before I could finish my sentence. It’s a quick, and sometimes loud, gasp. It shows they are paying attention, and responding to what you’ve said emotionally, the equivalent of the American nod, “hmm” or “um-hm.” I’ve grown to like it. Why? Because I know they are actively listening.
So what are the characteristics of active and empathic listening?
- Eye contact
- Avoiding interruptions
- A distraction-free environment
- Smiles, nods, or noises of agreement
- Acceptance of emotions, even the negative ones
- A focus on what the person is saying, not how we’re responding
- Advice is given within the context of, “this is just my take on it…”
Friendships are therapeutic, but they aren’t therapy. So don’t judge yourself for offering advice or providing feedback, it’s expected in friendships. We want to be challenged, and that happens in friendships. But listen first.
I experienced this idea that “talking heals” first hand when my nephew passed away. I healed the most when I let out what I was really feeling and thinking, the anger, guilt, and grief, without feeling judged. My friends listened, sometimes via chat or email, sometimes in person, sometimes via Skype. They asked questions, and they let me release the pressure valve in my mind. It’s not something a family member can do well, because they are experiencing their own grief, and usually find themselves incapable of offering comfort when they need it so deeply.
The most frustrating conversations were where I expressed anger or hurt, and was interrupted or given advice, or worse, given a theological platitude. When you experience loss, there is no logic or proper way to feel. There is no amount of theology that can comfort. There is nothing but pain. Talking heals that pain, more so than time.
Exercises in listening
- Put on an inspiring song. Sit still, close your eyes, and listen to the full song. Repeat it if you need to. Let it absorb.
- Recruit a friend or family member and set the timer for 10 minutes. Ask them about their day, start the timer, and listen as they talk. Listen to their words, the tone of their voice, their body language. Be completely silent, and try to express your responses through eye contact.
- Get comfortable with awkward pauses. Let the speaker gather their thoughts, give them time to think before they speak, and wait to let them continue.
- Make dinner-time phone-free. Put the phones in a basket and get them away from the table. Go around the table and allow each person to speak for a few minutes.