Listen well

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the art of listening well. When I think back over all my past and current relationships–friendships and romantic–the closest and deepest were the ones in which both parties were able, more often than not, to put aside their own agendas and listen to the other.

Friendships and romantic relationships that have soured usually evoke memories of not feeling heard or seen enough.

Who sees and hears you? Do you make an effort to see and hear others, putting your assumptions, interpretations, beliefs, and experiences aside? Are you a relentless advice prescriber, or maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of one?

Stephen Covey’s fifth habit is seek first to understand, then to be understood. I can tell you that seeking first to be understood has led to many an argument in past relationships. Both parties took defensive stances. Until you hear me, I refuse to hear you.

Covey says there are five levels of listening (252). The first is ignoring–when we just don’t listen at all. The second is pretending–when we respond with something like, Yeah, okay, or Sure, whatever you say, but we don’t really buy into or care about what the person is saying. We want to avoid confrontation or bring the conversation to a speedy conclusion or get to the part when we talk.

If you’ve been on the receiving end of either of those, you know how they hurt.

The third is selective listening–when we hear only certain parts of the conversation. Sometimes I hear only the parts that confirm what I already believe. Sometimes what I already believe is positive and sometimes it’s not. But I’ll listen for confirmation, not for the whole message. This has led to misunderstandings, miscommunication, and hurt feelings all around.

The fourth is attentive listening–when we actually do pay attention and channel our energy into what the other person is saying. And while we do hear them, we don’t fully process and think about what they say. Our agenda still hovers.

The fifth level is empathic listening. According to Covey, empathic listening means really trying to understand the other person, to get into their shoes, to see the world from their perspective, to feel their feelings. It’s not judgment, it’s not pity. It involves more than just hearing the words they say. It’s also reading their tone, their body language.

Empathic listening can be difficult. We have to put our own autobiographies aside, which have always served as the easiest way for us to understand the world. We make assumptions and interpret the world through what we have experienced. To actually receive someone else’s communication, we have to set our experience aside and clear the way for how they view the world.

If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone who listened to you in this wholehearted way, you probably walked away feeling relieved, like you just underwent the best therapy session of your life. You probably wanted to talk to that person more and maybe you even thought you might try to emulate them in your other conversations.

Covey says listening to others in this way makes huge deposits in the “Emotional Bank Account” you share with them (253). When you don’t listen and they don’t feel heard, that’s a withdrawal. Too many withdrawals = a relationship that drains and builds resentment. Deposits = trust, respect, and intimacy.

An easy example of how the emotional bank account gets overdrawn is the classic argument between parents and teenagers over homework and grades. “Why can’t you just study harder and get A’s like your sibling(s)?” is often the go-to with parents, when a more productive dialogue might open up by simply asking, “What’s going on, honey?” Or, “What does success look like to you? How can I support you in getting there?” Then listen.

In my relationship: “Why can’t you help out with housework? I’m just as busy as you are.” Revision: “What’s going on with you this week?” Then listen.

Covey also points out empathic listening gives others “psychological air” (253). In my relationships, psychological breathing room is my most basic need. When I feel I have the space to breathe and vent my emotions, the real work of growth, problem solving, and closeness can begin.

We’ve also been talking about listening in my coach training. So far, we’ve learned three basic levels of listening: subjective, objective, and intuitive.

Subjective means we’re hearing what the other person says through our own autobiographies. When they’re talking, we’re immediately conjuring up experiences from our lives that relate. I’m very guilty of trying to relate to other people in this way. Someone says to me, “Wow, I’m really struggling to get this paper written.” My response would be, “Yeah, I’m working on a paper, too, and it has nearly killed me.”

Yes, it’s nice that we’ve both had the same experience. Solidarity. But something is missing from that exchange. I made their experience about me.

In objective listening, we let go of our autobiography and try to hear the words of the other person. “Wow, I’m really struggling to get this paper written.” An objective listener responds, “It sounds like you’re having a really tough time.”

Here, we’re still just mirroring back what the other person said. I would almost want to laugh and respond, “Yes, that’s what I just said!” But there is still a sense of relief that I was heard.

Intuitive listening, however, tries to connect to a deeper message. It’s a lot like Covey’s empathic listening. And it’s the real game changer for relationships, in my experience.

We can pay attention to tone, body language, underlying feeling…even deeper, what’s not being said. This level of listening, when we connect to what’s underneath someone’s statements, makes someone feel heard and understood because we can hear what they themselves haven’t even grasped yet. Our bids for connection with other people often rely on circumstances in our lives. We use events to try to articulate the real vulnerabilities hiding just beneath the surface.

“Wow, I’m really struggling to get this paper written.” “It sounds like you’re exhausted and feeling frustrated. What do you think is going on?”

If I reference a circumstance and someone asks me about my feelings, I experience such a wash of relief. When someone asks me a question about what I’ve said that nudges me to think more about what’s going on, I’m so grateful. It feels like a recognition of my humanity. And that’s where the real feeling of solidarity comes in.

Imagine opening this space for others in your life. How might it deepen your relationships and build trust?


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