When I was an adolescent my sister-in-law taught piano lessons out of my parent’s home. She and I developed a weekly routine. I would babysit her infant daughter while she taught, and afterward, she and I would sit down at the kitchen table and chat until dinnertime. I look back on those afternoons with such warm feelings. Like a typical middle schooler, I was struggling with exploring my identity, maintaining friendships, and establishing some independence from my parents. Unlike other adults, I remember Amy patiently listening as I talked and talked and talked. I felt so important and grown up. Even though I was much younger, I considered Amy to be a close friend. She knew the power of listening and I was so grateful to experience that.
The Benefits of Listening
Through my personal life, my work as a therapist, and research that I’ve done I’ve discovered that there are many benefits of listening. While this list is not exhaustive here are some of the benefits that listening can bring:
- Fosters self-worth in those being listened to
- Unburdens the speaker of some of their emotions
- Breaks down feelings of isolation between people
- Encourages feelings of acceptance
- Defuses emotionally reactive situations
- Nourishes the connection in your relationship
Within the first few sessions with a new couple or family client, I love to do a listening activity where one person answers a question while the other person listens. The listener then states what they heard in their own words. Then they switch roles. I use oversized dice and colored cards when children are involved as it makes it feel like a game! The game sounds so simple and yet I find family members struggle when it’s their turn to listen. I’ve noticed it takes a bit of coaching for listeners get the hang of just repeating what they hear and nothing else. But once they do get the hang of it these sessions often bring up warm feelings of connection in each person as they have a chance to really be listened to. What does make listening so challenging?
The Challenges to Listening
I’ve found that even when we’re trying our best sometimes we don’t quite hear each other. Some common pitfalls I’ve experienced when trying to be a good listener include:
- Assuming I already know what the speaker is going to say
- Thinking about what I want to say while “listening”
- Being goal oriented/having your my needs that need to be met
- Trying to listen at a time that isn’t convenient for me
Listening with Friends and Coworkers
I wish I could wave a magic wand and make us all good listeners, but like most skills, this takes practice. A good place to practice is with coworkers or friends. Years ago I read the book The Lost Art of Listening by Michael P. Nichols, a book where many of the ideas for this blog come from. I had recently moved and wanted to establish new friendships. I was attending many social gatherings but didn’t feel like I was making meaningful connections. I decided to do a little experiment in listening at the next social function. Prior to this, I would try to dazzle new acquaintances with my witty banter or funny anecdotes, but now I wanted to see how little I could talk about myself.
I’d like to say that this little experiment went off without a hitch, but that night I found it really hard! I had so many great things to say that were related to the conversation and I couldn’t help it, the stories came bursting out! On my drive home I berated myself for not being a great listener.
So I tried again at the next social gathering. I remember meeting a shy, quiet woman who worked as a nanny. I was working at a research firm at the time and thought, “This is going to be the most boring conversation. We will have nothing in common.” But I stuck to my experience and I asked her all kinds of questions – what was the most difficult part of the work, what interesting things she experienced on the job, and what she liked about her job. I watched her eyes light up and she began telling me about her experience. Soon we were laughing about the funny experiences she had and deep insights she has gained from being part of a family in this unique way. At the end of the conversation, she said, “It was so nice to meet you!” I smiled because, beyond my name, I don’t think she learned a single thing about me. But the next time I saw her we both were excited to connect again, she even introduced me to some of her friends. Through listening, we had become close!
Listening with Children
On a recent stop into the grocery store, I watched a preschool-aged child pick up a banana and begin telling his mom all about it. While I shopped I heard this child provide a continuous monologue that would make many Shakespeare actors seemed short-winded. The mom picked out fruit while intonating the occasional “Uh huh.” I smiled knowingly, listening to kids is hard stuff! I’ve noticed it is particularly difficult to listen to our children when they are expressing those pesky negative emotions at inconvenient times (we really ARE running late!) or for seemingly illogical reasons (the red cup I gave you is no different than that red cup in the sink!).
I have found some great insights into the healing power of listening for children from Patty Wipfler’s book called Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges. She shares some amazing examples of how listening led to better behavioral outcomes in children. Some of my takeaways from the book were:
- Being a child involves some difficult stuff (being physically smaller than everyone, not being able to articulate needs, having to learn through trial and error, etc.)
- Trust children to pick the right moment to offload their difficult emotions
- Listening to a child’s emotional outburst doesn’t mean you don’t hold the boundaries necessary
- It’s important for parents to have a listening buddy where they can offload their emotions that come up with parenting!
- A child who feels heard can often move past the emotion that got them stuck
Listening with Partners
Now listening to our romantic partners is likely where it becomes most difficult. I remember the first time I set aside my own needs and actually listened to my partner during a tense moment. He was spelling out some things I did that made him upset recently (I know, I know turns out I make mistakes too!). As he was talking my inner lawyer was preparing my own defense and making a list of grievances that I wanted him to address! Suddenly, I caught myself and thought, “I’m a therapist for goodness sakes, shouldn’t I be able to listen?” I quickly fired the inner lawyer (for this moment), stayed quiet, occasionally asked clarifying questions, and like I do with my clients I really tried to hear for the emotions he was feeling.
Amazingly enough, the emotional fire quickly went out of the moment. Unbidden, my partner began talking about his part in the difficulty between us. I was shocked. I didn’t even need to present my own list! We were both able to sincerely apologize for our actions in the past and have a productive conversation about changes we each wanted to make to improve things in the future. Having been heard he was able to also hear and address my needs.
Not all listening moments will be that effective, but I do think especially in our relationships we can diffuse tense moments by simply listening, really listening.
Tips for Improving your Listening Skills
Now I’d like to say that insight into the power of listening will lead to automatic changes – that hasn’t been my experience anyway. But a little bit off effort can go a long way. Here are some tips that have helped me in my journey towards better listening
- Let go of those snap judgments that often pop up and instead take a curious stance – wonder (out loud even) how someone journeyed to the conclusions they did
- Notice when you are mentally preparing what to say next, turn your mind to what the listener is saying, try to trust the right words will come when it’s your turn to speak
- See if you can set aside your own needs while attending to those of the person you are listening to. Remind yourself that your time will come to get those needs met.
- Don’t attempt to listen when you’re busy or tired. Ask the expresser to wait until you’re able to give them your full attention
- If you’re interested do a little research! The two books I have learned from are The Lost Art of Listening by Michael P. Nichols and Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges by Patty Wipfler