The Art of Listening

Have you ever been talking to someone and started wondering, “Are they really listening to me? They are being quiet, but I’m not sure if they are really hearing me!” We all want to be heard. Feeling heard is vital to feeling loved and connected.  Today we are going to look at three principles that will help you listen and strengthen your relationships.

Scripture implores us to listen. “But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (James 1:19). “The one who gives an answer before he listens—this is foolishness and disgrace for him” (Proverbs 18:13).

Research backs this up. Dr. Stephen Porges, a researcher at the University of North Carolina, found that when people feel heard, the body calms down, they feel safe, and they become more creative and more engaged in connecting with others.

Scripture and research both confirm we need to listen better. How do we listen and help others feel heard?

1.  Attentiveness

Attentiveness seems to be a lost art in the modern world.   Everywhere we look, there’s a screen in our face: phone, computer, TV, ipad.  There is so much happening around us. No wonder people question whether we are listening to them.

When Becky and I do seminars on communication, we have people pair off and try a listening exercise. First, one person talks for 60 seconds while the other person doesn’t pay attention — they look away, make no eye contact, or play with their phone.  One minute seems like an eternity.  The one who is talking  feels frustrated and wants to give up.

Then we switch. One person speaks and this time the other works at attending: they make eye contact, nod the head, lean in, and ask questions with warmth and interest. The same 60 seconds fly by. The conversation is energized. Both people are engaged in the conversation and want to keep talking.

Likewise when we are talking with our  friends, co-workers, or spouse we need to give them our undivided attention. It helps them feel like we are engaged in the conversation.  It makes them feel heard.

2.  Validation

Validation is communicating that the other person’s thoughts, feelings, and perspectives are worthy of being listened to.

Examples of validation include:

  • “That was insightful, I appreciate …”
  • “I think I’d feel the same way if I were in your shoes.”
  • “That’s understandable.”

Too often we invalidate. Here are ways that people invalidate others and some examples:

  • Changing the subject without really responding

Wife:  Hey, sweetie, when I went for a walk today down by the beach, I saw some dolphins!  It was so cool!

Husband:  The Padres made a great trade today.

  • Ignoring the emotional content

Wife: I had such a hard day, so I got a late start on cooking dinner.  But it will be ready in 10 minutes.

Husband: It better be ready, I have an important meeting tonight.

  • Belittling

Husband:  Man, things have been so intense at work.  I need a break. I wish we could get away.

Wife: You need a break, try being at home with four kids!

Other ways we invalidate include:

  • Trying to cheer them up by talking about something else
  • Sarcasm
  • Name calling or labeling
  • Attributing the viewpoint to something else – “Oh, you’re just tired” or “You only think that because you saw on the Internet”

What if you disagree with other person’s point of view? This brings us to our next skill.

3.  Exploring

When we don’t understand someone’s point of view or it seems wrong or foolish, what do we do?  The key is to explore the topic. Ask questions like:

  • What do you mean by that?
  • Can you tell me more? Help me understand.
  • How did you come to that conclusion?
  • Have you considered…?

When we are exploring by asking these questions, we are seeking to understand, not trying to prove our point.

Our tone is critical when we ask questions. Dr. Porges’ research showed that a calm voice is soothing to the listener, and creates a sense of safety and people are more engaging.

Asking some of these same questions with a harsh tone will put people on the defensive. When we hear harsh tones, the research showed that the brain sends a message to the body to protect itself. The middle ear closes down and people don’t hear all the words we are saying. We literally have a harder time listening when we are upset. So when we say, “You aren’t listening to me!!!” — it’s more true than we realize.  There is great wisdom in Proverbs 15:1, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

Listening is critical for creating emotional safety and warmth in our relationships.  What areas do you need to work on: attending, validating or exploring?

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