How many times when you're speaking to a friend or spouse do you speak over them? I'm guessing you think "not very often." I certainly did, not only among my friends but among my patients.
But recently I did an experiment. In an effort to improve my listening skills in therapy, I started to note all the times I interrupted a patient during a session. Like most people, I thought too highly of myself and my own abilities! Surely I'd find that I rarely interrupted people. I'm a therapist after all. That means I'm a great listener.
As you can probably guess, I interrupted my patients far more often than I'd like to admit. Some of it was necessary. I can think of a few people who tend to shame themselves often, and the need to interrupt that kind of thinking is often necessary. But often it wasn't. It was hardly malicious. Often I just had a comment on something they said, and I didn't wait till they were done.
But interrupting was not a good thing. At its best, I was adding to the conversation but stunting a complete thought from my patient. At it's worse I was not letting my patient be heard. This had to change.
People seem to think that listening is passive. It can be if you're doing it badly (like most of us). But in my search for better listening skills, I began to see how difficult and active good listening really is. So I decided to compile a list of 3 ways to become a better listener.
1) Pay Attention to Content
This seems easier than it really is. Most of us are half-listening when people are speaking and are often just getting ready to respond. But have you tried just concentrating on a person's words fully and openheartedly? It's hard and active and can be exhausting. But it's necessary for real connection.
2) Notice nonverbal cues
Whether you realize it or not, you're picking up all sorts of nonverbal cues from your conversation partner. As a therapist though, I've had to learn to be consciously aware of those cues, such as when a person has an angry furrow despite saying that they were feeling fine. Being aware of a person's body language will often give you clues into a person's state of mind.
3) Noticing How You're Feeling As You Listen
This is often the most difficult one. Why? Because it's really hard to discern how we're feeling in general. Just a few days ago, I was feeling pretty grumpy. And I felt annoyed at a lot of people and was probably short with them. I was convinced that they were doing something. Of course, it turns out, I was coming down with a cold. And I was hungry.
So it goes with listening. I encounter it all the time in therapy. When someone is sad and anxious, often my urge is to try and fix them and give them solutions. Why? On one level, I'm trying to help them.
But on another level, that person's anxiety and sadness are bringing up my own anxiety and sadness. And I'm not self-aware, it's really hard to tolerate those feelings. So I respond by trying to "fix" their emotions. It's not a great way to respond but almost everyone does.
So how do we need to respond to someone's genuine anxiety and sadness? To give them space to express their emotions without giving them useless, cliched platitudes. To not offer any solutions that are obvious. But to listen. And offer comforting empathetic words.
This may seem easy, but I assure it's not. Most people cannot really tolerate their own anxiety and they must "do" something to make it better. If we could learn to listen to our bodies and what it feels like to inhabit them, I think we'd be in a better place as a culture.