Talking and listening involves a unique relationship in which two people are constantly switching roles. In any conversation the speaker and the listener are jockeying for position, with the needs of one competing with the needs of the other. If you doubt this, try sharing a personal problem with someone and see how long it takes for them to interrupt you – either with one of their own problems, or in order to share a similar story or to offer you advice. Nothing hurts more than the sense that the people close to us aren’t really listening to what we have to say. It sounds so simple to say that a conversation involves one person talking and another person listening, and we so easily take it for granted. And yet it can often feel as if those closest to us aren’t really listening.
Listening is a Skill that We Can Learn
The need to communicate touches every area of our lives. Everything we do in life requires communication with others. In the first years of life, we learn to speak and this is an important developmental milestone and a sign that a child is developing normally. However, listening is an equally important skill that we need to learn. When we don’t learn to listen, we often witness a breakdown in communication and we feel the frustration and discouragement that are the residual results of such a failure to listen.
What does it take to become a good listener? Where can you begin if you want to improve your listening skills? This article is the first of a two-part series in which I offer some concrete suggestions, which can help you to become a better listener. As a Christian counselor my clients have found these to be very effective.
Listen with Respect
A good listener recognizes how important it is to communicate to others that what they have to share is valuable. When you show respect for the ideas and thoughts of your family, friends and coworkers, they will be more likely to respond respectfully to your own ideas. They will also be more likely to continue to communicate with you, for respect fosters growth and understanding.
Being a respectful listener also involves drawing out important thoughts and information. This can help to uncover feelings and needs that are not yet clear, and can also provide fresh ideas and possible solutions. By using statements such as, “Tell me more,” or, “That sounds important,” you let the other person know that you are fully engaged in the listening process. Summarizing can also be an important way to ensure that you have understood correctly, and that everyone is on the same page. You can do this either during the conversation, or if you don’t, you should certainly do it at the end. By asking questions, your respectful listening gives the other person the opportunity to fill in the gaps that you don’t know, and to explain things that are unclear to you. Through this, you can gain greater clarity and understanding and avoid confusing information and mixed messages.
Listen with Empathy
Empathy is the capacity to share and understand the experiences and feelings of another person. Empathetic listening involves listening and responding to another person in such a way that you improve your mutual understanding and trust. True empathy is the ability to fully understand and accept another person, with all their feelings, thoughts and opinions. When someone needs empathy and understanding, it is frustrating to speak to a person who does not engage with them, or who simply offers fix-it advice.
As you seek to listen with empathy, learn to listen for what is not being said. What is in the way? What is missing? What is needed right now? What is important to the speaker?
Christian Counseling Can Help You to Become a Better Listener
We all need to feel that we are being heard and understood; indeed, this is a basic human need that is essential for our survival. In my following article, I will provide some more concrete suggestions about how we can listen with both respect and empathy. However, if you feel that your relationships could benefit from more effective listening skills, you may also want to explore how a trained Christian counselor can help you to become a better listener.
Images are from freedigitalphotos.net; “Girl Listens With Hand At Ear” by Jeroen van Oostrom; “Father With Two Children” by Ambro