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Listening: Harder Than It Sounds

Updated: Jul 31, 2021

Learning how to listen is a profoundly important skill. Whether it's listening to yourself or others, it a skill that is applicable in nearly every situation for everyone. Today, I want to focus more on what it means to listen to other people in a supportive way.

One of the most significant moments in my life (which was a catalyst for me in becoming a therapist) was when I learned how to listen to others more effectively. It was incredible to me how these simple tips provided other people with the space and safety needed to let themselves be seen and heard.

But what impacted me the most was learning how awful I had been at listening to people before. It shocked me how guilty I was of frequently making conversations about myself, my experiences, and my thoughts.

To make a long story short, I loved hearing the sound of my own voice a little too much.

Effective and supportive listening can be difficult to do, especially when: when we are distracted by our own life problems (or our phones), when there are time constraints, or if we are uncomfortable listening to other people's difficult experiences. However, more than any of these, it's due to the fact that we lack the self-awareness that we are poor listeners.


Here are six problem listening styles which DON'T help other people feel heard, cared for, or understood:

1) Self-focused/ Sympathetic Listener: When we get caught up in our own frame of reference or emotional response to the story. We never move beyond our experience of someone else's story.

2) Evaluative Listener: When we pass judgement, not open/curious. Finds things to criticize about the speaker, implying that they are at fault for their problems. In other words, they're experience becomes less important than what you think they "should have done."

3) Theory Listener: Our attempt to fit a person into a diagnosis/theory. In this scenario, we essentially believe that we are the expert in the conversation. And when you're the expert on someone else's experience, you have no reason to be curious about what they have to say.

4) Selective Listener: Focuses on parts of what is said, but not the heart of the matter. Listening to what we want to hear, not the narrative of what they are sharing.

5) Monopolizer Listener: Steals the conversation and begins rambling about the topic at hand; they play one-upmanship. I think we all know how this goes.

6) Fixer Listener: Aims to solve the problem, rather than just listen and support the speaker. I find that this one here is particularly relevant for most people; and it reflective of our own discomfort when hearing other's people's difficulty. We can't handle that they are somehow in pain, and so we want to spare ourselves by fixing their problem. This video below sums it up pretty well (as a disclaimer, I don't really love the way they portray gender dynamics, but the message is still applicable).

So, how do we actually listen to others in a more effective way? There are a lot of different components here, but the key here is understanding empathy: the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another's position.

An easy tip in practicing empathy when listening to others is to follow this simple formula when responding to others:

"(Tentatively) You feel _______, because _________."

In this formula, your role in listening is to understand how the other person feels, and why they feel that way; and you remain tentative because you want to allow them to correct you if you're not on track. You put your own understanding, expertise, evaluations, thoughts, opinions, and everything else on hold; and you simply try to understand their experience from their perspective and their story. It might feel a robotic or even scripted, but if you can transpose this formula into your way of communicating, you might be surprised by how effective this can be.

To watch a great video in explaining the difference between empathy and sympathy, check this out:

Do you have any feedback/questions on this article? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know. I'd love to continue learning with you :)

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