Listening is important. It’s a staple in relationships. It’s one of the fundamental building blocks of our day to day life. We seek it from our partners, our families, our co-workers, and even our social institutions. When we offer it to someone in distress, listening is also a fundamental act of kindness.
Every day, each of us wants to be heard. I ask my spouse to “listen to me”. In a meeting I hear the phrase, “hear me out”. Parents will often ask, unfortunately with exasperation, “are you listening to me?”. With the advent of social media, people are sharing everything, from their most trivial thoughts to their deepest beliefs, for all the world to see. I believe this too relates to our need to be heard. Listening is also enshrined in our social institutions, such as courts of law, and offices of government like the INS, IRS and Congress. These forums offer a ‘hearing’ to those with a cause or complaint. We each have an individual point of view and our own experiences. We each prize our thoughts and opinions, some to a greater degree than others, and we feel a need to be validated by those around us. We want to be heard. When we are heard we feel good. We feel like we matter. We feel loved. And most importantly we feel like we belong.
With so much need for hearing, we all must be really good at listening. Right? ……… (sigh..) Well, not exactly.
Listening seems so basic, so automatic, that we all, generally speaking, think that we’re great at it. How could listening be hard? When you consider the other 4 senses, hearing is the one that appears to require the least amount of effort. In order to taste, I have to put something in my mouth; to touch, I must be within arm’s reach. Smell also requires more proximity than listening. And compared to sight, I can even hear around corners! Hearing is a pretty powerful sense. Hearing is always on and we can even hear with our eyes closed! So listening must be a no-brainer… But, it’s really not.
True listening is infrequent, and in demand. Answer these questions: do you feel heard by your spouse? what about your parents? your kids? and this one’s a stretch, but, how about your boss or co-workers? Of all of these, perhaps your spouse listens the best, and yet, you might still think that he/she, too, could hear you better. Then again, we can flip the question as well — if I asked your spouse if she/he feels heard by you, what would he/she say?
As a general rule, I’d say there is one kind of hearing, but there are three types of listening, which comes as a surprise to many couples. First is the kind of listening you do when you’re trying to solve a problem, which I call Problem Solving or Fix-It Listening. This kind of listening is what guys are generally quick to use, which also frequently gets them in trouble with their wives or girlfriends. Fix-It Listening is pretty much what it sounds like — one partner talks about a problem or an issue they’re having while the “listener” analyzes the problem and cues up the list of suggestions and fixes, affectionately referred to as the ‘have-you-tried’ parade. For instance, Betty comes home from work and says to her husband, Bob, “I am so stressed. My boss is giving me so much work to do and she doesn’t care how much I’ve taken on already.” To which Bob responds with, “Have you tried organizing your tasks better?”, Or, “have you tried talking to her?” Or, “how about delegating some of it yourself?” Betty then becomes frustrated and stops talking while Bob congratulates himself for being a good husband and, yet again, helping Betty fix one of her problems. Fix-It Listening can be a great help, but only when it’s invited. Here’s my rule of thumb: unless you hear, “what do you think I should do?”, or a similar request, then it’s probably a good idea to hold onto all the great ideas until later.
The second kind of listening is comparative, or Me-Too Listening. Broadly speaking, women are more likely to engage in this kind of listening. It’s usually a means of sharing experiences and communicating between two people a shared sense that you both have had similar experiences and therefore have a sense of what the other is talking about. Comparative listening is when one person talks about an issue, experience, or problem, while the listener cues up her own list of similar experiences — this would be the ‘me-too’ parade. Let’s go back to Betty. Instead of her husband Bob, she’s out at lunch with her sister, Sue. She starts again, “I am so stressed. My boss is giving me so much work to do and I don’t think she cares how much I’ve taken on already.” To which Sue responds with, “The same thing happened to me last spring! My boss was clueless about my projects and kept putting things in my in-box. Can you believe it?”. Betty then becomes frustrated and backs off the topic, while Sue thinks she’s done such a great job connecting with Betty by, yet again, sharing one of her own ‘me-too’ stories. Here’s the rule of thumb for Me-Too Listening: when the mood is heavy, hold off on the Me-Too list until you hear something that sounds like, “has anything like this ever happened to you?”
The third kind of listening is Empathetic Listening or Active Listening. Active Listening, compared to the first two, uses fewer words in response to a speaker. After all, it’s about listening, not speaking, right?… The main goal of Active Listening is to show the speaker that you are giving him your undivided attention, you are focused on her words, you understand what he is saying, you encourage her to continue, you receive his message free of judgment, and you offer support while listening. This might seem like a lot to get across without using words, however, it’s easier when you get out of your own way. That’s the hard part, letting go of what you might want to contribute in order to give the speaker a window of time that’s just for, and all about, him or her.
So what does Active Listening look and sound like? Well, first of all, your body needs to tell the speaker you’re listening. You turn toward the speaker, look at the speaker, make frequent eye contact, and sit or stand with a posture that says, “I’m listening to everything you’re saying because it’s important”. The TV goes off. The phone goes away. The laptop is closed. All body signs of attention are turned toward the speaker. What does it sound like? First, while the speaker is talking you can give brief verbal cues that signal the speaker that you are staying with him or her while encouraging him or her to continue. These are short utterances like, “uh-huh”, “I see”, “really”, etc. Second, periodically, it’s helpful to tell the speaker you understand what he or she is saying. You can do this by repeating what the speaker says, paraphrasing what the speaker says, or reflecting back to the message you’re heard in your own words — “wow, Betty, it’s really tough that your boss is so unaware of how hard you’re working already, and keeps piling on more work.” As you encourage and understand the speaker, you can also validate the speaker’s feelings. When he/she sounds frustrated, offer, “That sounds frustrating.” When the speaker sounds sad, offer, “you seem sad.” When the speaker is angry, especially when he/she happens to be angry with you, simply naming and validating feelings with, “You seem pretty upset”, can go a long way to making the speaker feel better and turning down the heat of the moment as well. Also consider tone of voice; when you want to be sympathetic, keep that in your voice. People will more frequently key in on tone of voice over content.
Active Listening requires you to put aside your agenda and focus entirely on the speaker. Active Listening is truly difficult when you find yourself annoyed by what someone is sharing with you. However, I guarantee you’ll spend less time fighting the more you and your spouse use Active Listening in moments of stress.