A guest post by Justine Gore-Smith
‘I hear you.’
How often have you heard this phrase in your life and genuinely felt like you had been not only heard, but understood? It’s more likely that someone has just said ‘I hear you’ or ‘I’m listening’ without meaning it and the end result is we actually feel worse rather than better. We’re all busy and have many tasks to fit into our days; I’m sometimes ‘listening’ to my children while simultaneously doing something else on my phone, because I’ve decided what I’m doing is more important. It might well be to me, but not to them.
So how can we properly listen to one another? There’s some great tips in this (short) TED talk clip: https://youtu.be/WER63AY8zB8
The first step is to really focus on the person in front of you, and not on anything else – as the speaker says ‘Be here now’.
Make eye contact with the person talking, ideally without making them feel self-conscious.
Relax your face and your body language so you’re showing you’re open, interested, engaged. This might mean sitting forward, uncrossing your arms.
Next, she talks about checking that you understand what they’ve said – basically summarising what you’ve heard. This is particularly important if you’re not sure what they’re saying – and it’s ok to say ‘I’m not sure I’ve understood you. Are you saying…?’
An alternative to summarising is to paraphrase – to put what you’ve heard into your own words. It’s important not to change the meaning – we’re checking our understanding of the person talking.
Using a metaphor (even a well-used one) to check understanding can be really powerful, particularly when the other person is trying to make sense of their own feelings. ‘It sounds like you feel like you’re trying to keep everything together, but all your boss is doing is giving you more things to hold’. ‘Yes! And then she gets annoyed if I drop something, even though I’ve asked her for help.’
Early on in my counselling training we were told to never tell a client ‘I know how you feel’. While we can all understand common difficult emotions like anger, sadness, guilt, or frustration, we are all individual and each our unique history and experiences give us a different perspective on the same situation. Just because someone else coped with a similar-sounding experience easily doesn’t mean you should react in the same way. Grief is one example where someone’s feelings can be mixed and complicated – they might be relieved, angry, and upset all at once.
A powerful exercise to demonstrate active listening is where one person talks for two minutes on a safe topic (for example, an achievement you’re proud of). The other person in the role of listener can only nod or use other non-verbal cues to show they’re listening. After two minutes they swap.
Feedback from this exercise often includes people saying how unusual it is to talk uninterrupted – usually conversation is like a tennis match with the control being batted back and forth, possibly with one person dominating. The listener often reports how hard it is not to interrupt, and both can find the experience awkward.
Clearly this is a contrived exercise and not indicative of active listening in normal conversation, but it highlights how unusual it is to be the sole focus of another’s attention and how powerful it can be to really be heard.
Justine is a founder member of Phoenix Counselling Cooperative practising in the UK.