It’s something we do all the time - listening. But are you really listening? Are you hearing what the other person is saying. We are all guilty of ‘listening’ while we are sneakily playing Words With Friends or ‘listening’ when we are going through a mental checklist of the contents of the fridge. I am guilty as charged.
And then that sudden realisation that you didn’t actually hear the important bit - the confession, the plea, the question. It doesn’t mean we don’t care but most of us are just rubbish at listening.
So how do we really listen when someone needs to be heard? Here are some pointers.
Try to be attentive. Put away the phone, iPad, newspaper and make eye contact. Make some time to listen. But if you have just got in from work, need food or have an imminent deadline, be honest that the timing isn’t great and agree a time to talk later.
Try to actually let them talk. Don’t interrupt and don’t spend the time they are talking planning what you are going to say. Connect with what they are saying. We all know those people who have done everything bigger, louder, faster than you. If you have a cold, they have double pneumonia. Don’t be that person!
Try to put aside your eagerness to help or fix things - “do it differently”, “that happened to me”, “oh you’re being silly”. When you try to 'fix', it might make you feel better but it will probably make them feel worse. You are effectively telling them they don’t really know how they are feeling and/or that you know better. Let them talk and wait for them to finish. If you're interrupting, I can guarantee you're not listening.
Ask questions that will help you understand what they are saying. When there is a natural pause check your understanding. Sometimes you might need more information - “how long have you been feeing this way?”. Some questions check our understanding - “I’m not sure I understand, can you explain what you meant by...”. Then listen to the answer. But don't ask too much - this isn't a quiz show.
Don't fear the silence. There is no need to shuffle awkwardly in your seat or jump in with your pearls of wisdom. Sometimes we need to gather our thoughts or think about what we have just said. Silence isn't an awkward empty space; it's really valuable processing time for both of you. So try to just sit with the silence and see where it goes.
Pay attention to everything, not just the words. What are the facial expressions telling you? The body language? Is there something they are deliberately not talking about? What clues does their tone of voice give you? All of these give you clues as to what they might be feeling.
I promise that if you really listen, properly listen, the other person will feel heard. And that in itself is a wonderful and healing thing.
Would you like to be heard? Maybe counselling would help. Feel free to contact me if you would like to know more.