What did you just say? I’m sorry I was thinking about something else, go ahead, tell me again what you were saying?
When we are in the middle of telling a story that is very important to us and someone obviously isn’t listening it can be a real downer. Suddenly we shut off and the conversation stops flowing in an instant. Listening is a valuable skill, and not only does listening allow you to better understand others, but it also cause people to listen more to intently to you as well.
It may seem counterintuitive, but if you REALLY want someone to listen to you, the best way to achieve that is to listen to them first. When we listen, we increase trust and connection, we show empathy and understanding, and we strengthen our own position as we learn what concerns and feedback other people have about a topic.
We often hear that communication is the key to a healthy relationship, but there are plenty of people who communicate exactly what they want to their partners, but still experience problems. Part of effective communication is not only telling others what you want, but hearing what they want and say as well. An irreplaceable part of successful communication is listening, and learning how to increase our focus and attention on the words others say will make our relationships better and our lives happier.
- Be present.
The first necessary part of listening is attention. We must be able to focus on what the other person is saying and remove other thoughts from our mind in order to effectively listen. How effectively can you read a paragraph if you are thinking about what you are going to do later on in the day?
We must first learn to remove all other thoughts from our mind in order to effectively listen (this includes thinking about what you will say next), your full attention should be spent on listening to the other person. If you are thinking about what you want to say next, or where you are going later, you aren’t really giving the other person your full attention.
- Put yourself in their shoes.
Listen to the other person and try to imagine yourself in their situation. As they tell you their story or communicate the message they are trying to get across, actually visualise yourself in their position and try to imagine how it feels. Of course we all handle things differently, but if we can imagine the feelings a person is experiencing we can better understand their message. If the person was greatly angered by something, it can be easy to write it off and skip their message, because if we aren’t angry its hard to understand their point.
We must learn to imagine ourselves in their situation, but also experience the same emotions as they do as well. It’s not always easy, but trying to imagine how it feels to be someone else is a great way to increase your understanding and get you both on the same page.
- Periodically ask questions or paraphrase what you understood back to them.
Of course we don’t want to grill the person or make them feel they are part of an FBI interrogation, but part of practicing empathy is understanding how other people really feel. By asking certain questions- when appropriate- we can come to better understand the person, how they feel, and what happened. We can also practice repeating a short paraphrasing of their words back to the person as they speak. If we combine this practice with presence and empathy, paraphrasing can be a valuable tool.
Imagine you are telling someone a story about a person who cut you off in traffic and you are explaining how angry you got. As you tell your story, they add in “Wow, so they just cut you off and drove off? How pissed were you? I bet you were fuming!”. Most likely, you would feel happy that this person is listening so intently to you. You would feel listened to, understood, and you would feel encouraged to continue on with your story. By giving a short paraphrase we can show we really care about people and that we are interested in the other person’s story.
- Only give input if they ask for it.
It can be tempting to give our two cents (especially men, as we tend to be “fixers”), because we will often have a good answer for the person’s problem. Since they are attached more to the emotions going on in the situation, it can be harder for the person involved to make a good decision- as listeners we have a unique opportunity to truly help this person through their dilemma- but we must be patient.
If a person tells us their issue and we immediately discount their feelings by giving them a solution, despite the fact that we are trying to be helpful, it will often make others feel ignored and misunderstood. Often others just want to talk things out outloud: this helps them find peace and they can also find more clarity in what they are thinking and feeling. As listeners we should help in the process by giving our full attention and trying to understand, and ONLY when the person asks for our input should we chime in with our suggestions.
By using these 4 major rules we can become more attentive, more empathetic, and better at understanding and bonding with others. In our relationships especially, we can be tempted to object to complaints or defend ourselves, but this defensive stance will often exacerbate problems and create new ones. By committing to taking an open and caring stance and listening to others thoughts and concerns, we can become better listeners and increase the bonds of trust and connection between us.