How to Listen

Listening is an active word. It is not the same as ‘hearing’. When you hear something, it doesn’t mean you’ve paid attention, only that sound waves have hit your eardrums.

In light of all the horrible things going on lately, I’ve been thinking about ‘listening’ and how hard it can be. Once, a long long time ago, I did counselling training with the crisis center (dealing with suicide prevention, teens going through troubles). I am by no means an expert, but the bits about listening have informed the rest of my life.

These tips may almost seem too obvious, but they take practice and self-control. Really these are tips on how to be a better person.

How to be a good listener

  • Let the people who are hurt speak. Do not cut them off. Do not try to explain why what they are feeling is wrong. Don’t interrupt them. Do not compare your own pain/troubles to theirs.
  • Do not offer advice. When someone is hurting, the first bit of healing comes with acknowledging all the pent up emotions. Sometimes it’s rage, anger, frustration, sadness… whatever it is, it needs to come out. Figuring out what to do next happens when everyone is calm and composed again, not in the heat of emotion.
  • Reserve judgement. This is not about you, but you can learn from what other people are saying. Sometimes the things they will say are uncomfortable, but fight that impulse to interrupt, or turn away. Listen first, then come to conclusions after you have more information, and preferably not when you’re feeling shocked, insulted, or offended. Strong negative first reactions are usually shields that our brains use to protect our ways of thinking. If something is uncomfortable it might mean that our view of the world is changing. It’s perfectly okay to not agree when all things are said and done. Strong negative first reactions also happen when we feel like we’re being accused of wrongdoing. It’s almost primal. It may not be the case. It may not be personal. Swallow that pride with a cool glass of water, and think on things when you’re calm.

Tips that are for 1:1 interactions (Probably not Twitter)

  • You can acknowledge or try to name the feeling the person is experiencing. This helps them feel understood. If you name the emotion wrong, or get the reason for the feeling wrong, the person you’re talking to will probably correct you. (In psychology terms this is called ‘reflection’. ) For example, “You’re feeling angry and frustrated, because of what happened yesterday.”
  • The person you’re talking to probably already knows what to do next. If this is a personal problem, somewhere deep down, this person probably knows what next steps to take. They might be in denial though. You can gently try and ask them what they think they should do next, and help them sort it out if they’re confused.*
  • If you can’t handle it, or you’re worried for someone’s safety, make sure someone gets professional help, or talk to someone who can help. There are free crisis hotlines in most areas. Maybe get the person to promise to talk to a counselor or a teacher, and follow up on them to make sure they do.

Actually, the bits about letting people feel the emotion, then naming that emotion verbally, then waiting for things to calm down before taking action is also a way of diffusing toddler tantrums (kid you not).**

Everyone wants to feel like their words matter, even toddlers.

I hope this is helpful for some of you. I need to remind myself of these things too. It’s not easy to listen well, which is why I think most people don’t.

*You want to avoid becoming a crutch every time this person has a problem. It’s more useful to help someone form the skills to deal with a problem, and realizing they can.
**If you’re in Canada (or maybe on the internet) you can look up the kids show ‘The Adventures of Napkin Man’. That there is the basic premise for every episode. Maybe it’s a bit idealistic, but it’s cool to see in action and in a way that kids can understand.

2 Comments to “How to Listen”

  1. Really great advice, T.S. This is a collection of habits I am constantly striving for, with varying degrees of success. Thanks for synthesizing it all here.

    “Strong negative first reactions are usually shields that our brains use to protect our ways of thinking. If something is uncomfortable it might mean that our view of the world is changing.”

    So very true.

    And oof, the PS about not becoming someone’s crutch is really important too. I can think of at least a couple people who lean on me more than they probably should, and I’m as much to blame for that as they are. Working on it…

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