After watching the presidential debates, I thought a good topic for the newsletter this month was one on listening skills. It seems like it should be natural, after all we’re born with ears, but hearing and listening are different.
Hearing is receiving sound vibrations that stimulate a nerve impulse, while listening is the skill of using all the senses to interpret the messages being sent to you from another person and responding in a way that lets them know you understand them. Perhaps it is a new born that is red faced and crying. She is arching her back as she wriggles in your arms. If you become a good listener, you’ll be able to tell if she is letting you know that she is hungry, tired or in need of a diaper change all before she is verbal. Much of our communication continues to be non-verbal, even after we learn to speak. A good listener will respond appropriately; offering them breast to nurse, or rocking them to sleep or changing their nappy. That’s good communicating.
Perhaps you have a teen who rolls his eye balls when you ask if their homework is done, and they reply snarkily “Oh my god, YES”. They are saying a lot more to you than simply confirming that their homework is done if you listen to the entire message being communicated. They are also saying “You bother me when you ask me. You don’t trust me”. It’s often what is NOT said and the feelings associated with it that we have to learn to watch for and respond to.
So let’s look at some basic fundamentals of how you might start improving relationships in your family by practicing listening skills. See how much this one skill practiced regularly improves how the family is functioning by the end of this month.
Step One: Start by really wanting to be curious about the other person. Truly care about the person that you’re listening to while suspending any judgement. It’s about showing a desire that you want to get to know them and understand them and their experience fully.
Step Two: While listening, give your full attention. Too often we multitask and are distracted when we are trying to listen. Instead of glancing at your phone, or listening while you’re busy doing something else, pause for a moment when something important is being said. Move closer so you’re not talking across a room or up a staircase. Try to be at their eye level. This helps you attend to what they are saying better, but it also communicates to them that they are important and valuable to you, and so is what they have to say.
Step Three: Resist the urge of getting distracted with what you want to say in response. It’s easy to stop listening because you are focussing instead on your rebuttal. You’ll have time for that in just a moment. For now – just LISTEN.
Step Four: Encourage the person to open up and continue talking, by giving prompts such as; tell me about that, can you say more? Help me understand better.
Step Five: As they talk more openly encourage them to continue with cues that say you are interested and you want them to continue. Nodding your head, saying yes, or go on, let’s the other person know that you are following and want them to have the floor and that it is safe to continue speaking openly and candidly.
Step Six: Use the art of paraphrasing, or summarizing and repeat back to the person you’re listening to your shortened understanding of what they have said in your own words. This way the other person can confirm whether or not you’ve understood what they’ve actually said. You can start by saying things like: If I understood you correctly, you said… Or, what I think you’re saying is… Or If I have this right you’re saying… What I heard you say was…
This allows them to correct any misinterpretations or to confirm that yes indeed you do understand them. That feeling of being understood is powerful. You don’t have to agree with them, you just have to understand them.
Step Seven: Be sure to include the emotion being communicated, not just the content of what they were saying. It’s not enough to say “you didn’t like that your puzzle broke”. Try “it sounds like you’re angry that you worked so hard on that puzzle and all that hard work just got destroyed, is that right?”
Step Eight: Use “I” messages instead of “You” messages. “You” messages assign blame and make the other person defensive. Instead speak of your own behaviours and experiences. You can use this formula:
I feel ____ when you____ because _____ and I would rather___
Here is an example: instead of the usual “Don’t riffle through clean clothes hamper for a clean shirt!”
Try: “I feel my time and efforts have been disrespected when you rifle through the clean clothes basket because it messes up all the cloths I worked hard to fold. I would rather you lift off the other items carefully and replace them so everything stays unwrinkled.”
Sure it’s a lot longer to say all that – but isn’t it worth it if it helps avoid a fight and keeps the relationship healthy?
Give it a try! Your kids might say “why are you talking funny?” but I am sure you’ll see how impactful it is.