If you have ever been talking to someone who is more interested in checking their phone than hearing you talk, I’m willing to bet you felt pretty different than when you were speaking to someone who was fully engaged in what you were saying. Some of the characteristics of the “not-so-great” listener might be…easily distracted, little to no eye contact, looking at their phone incessantly, no verbal or bodily cues that show their listening (i.e. nodding their head, responding with “yes, that makes sense”), the list goes on.
Listening is an art and definitely takes intentionality to do it well. Believe me, although I work as a therapist I’m also a normal human, and when a client looks at the floor for 95% of the session and talks at a glacier pace it can be incredibly difficult to stay present and not allow my mind to wander. Keeping my heart, mind, and body actively present in the room is vital to the effectiveness of the work that I do.
I can miss SO much if I’m not engaging with the client in front of me. For example, I could miss that they used the same word multiple times to describe their boyfriend that they also used to describe their abuser. I could miss that every time they talk about a certain person or situation they start excessively fidgeting. I could miss that any time we start talking about specific parts of their past they find a way to redirect to another topic entirely. These are all cues, and very important ones that give me vital information into what is happening internally for the person in front of me.
I get that not everyone is a therapist, however, we are ALL in relationships and therefore could all benefit by learning more about some of the important qualities that make up a good listener. For example, actively listening and being present while a person shares their story has the power to humanize their experiences. When we can share our story with another person who is invested in hearing it, it brings humanity and warmth to the places that feel lifeless and cold.
Pain has a way of isolating us and when our stories live in isolation we not only feel incredibly alone but we’re also tempted to buy into the lie that we are powerless in our pain.
Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” Bearing witness is a term used in psychology that refers to sharing our experiences with others whether verbally, through our writing, or art. Consider the power of a witness in the legal system. Let’s say that someone robbed a bank and there was a person, a witness, that saw the group of robbers pull up in their 2010 Chevy truck with a California license plate and saw the faces of the robbers, and heard them call each other by name as they were walking into the bank before they robbed it.
I would imagine that witness would be incredibly important to validate and speak to the truth of what happened that day, especially for those bank tellers and patrons who experienced the horrors of the bank robbery. Without a witness the people who experienced the trauma of the robbery may not have the opportunity to also experience the justice and validation that comes from having someone say, “yes, I saw that, and what happened to you was real and it mattered.”
When we intentionally listen to another person we are “bearing witness” to their story and validating them in their feelings, thoughts, and experiences. When we are effective listeners with each other we are given a powerful opportunity to say, “yes, I hear you, I see you, and bear witness to the pain you experienced.” We can’t turn back time and reverse what happened but by validating a person’s experience we can promote repair and healing for their hearts.
All that to say, as we’re on the journey of becoming great listeners here are some of the things to consider and be on the lookout for when someone is sharing their story.
1. Ninety-three percent of our communication is non-verbal so nodding your head to acknowledge what a person has said, and maintaining eye contact is important to communicate to the person that you are interested and invested in what they’re saying.
2. Staying active in your listening will keep your mind from wandering, and make it possible to catch important details that you’ll need later. It’s been said that “the devil is in the details” and in a similar way the missing links for a person are going to be discovered in the nuanced details of their story. Paying attention will allow you to capture those to reflect back to them later.
3. Just as ACTIVE listening is important, so is REFLECTIVE listening. For example, if someone said, “I’m always busy running around and trying to do everything for everyone and I’m so tired of it.” Reflective listening would sound like, “it sounds like your being pulled in a lot of different directions to meet the needs of those around you and are feeling exhausted physically and maybe even emotionally because of it.” We are giving back to the other person what we think we’ve heard, which gives them the opportunity to hear their own words reflected back to them. This promotes self awareness and creates an opportunity to consider the meaning of their words. Reflective listening also communicates to the person that YOU ARE listening and care about what they are sharing since you were able to give back to them what they gave you.
4. Listen for the third voice in the conversation. The third voice is often made up of hidden fears and limiting beliefs. For example, if someone says, “I can’t do that because what if it doesn’t work?” The third voice could be, “I’m so afraid because if I fail it will reinforce the belief that I’m worthless.” If we can hear the third voice we can speak to the heart of a person. We can speak to the fear and the lies with grace and truth. We can validate their experience and lift their eyes to the possibility of higher ground.
In our relationships we are not attempting to be each other’s therapists but we can learn to go deeper in our understanding of how to be empathetic and understanding in our communication. We can become better witnesses to each other’s stories–holding sacred space for the pain and reminding one another of the hope that lies on the other side.