Listening to Understand

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

— STEPHEN R. COVEY

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I've always considered myself a good friend and a good listener. Someone that anyone can come to if they need a bit of warmth, a kind ear. Someone who values vulnerability and tenderness above all else. And while that remains true (I hope), over the past year my understanding of connection and communication, including my own habits as a friend have been challenged over and over again. We live in a world where we are conditioned to express and share in competition with each other. Simply listening to another person's experience is not enough, we need to prove we understand by sharing our own experience or by having the right words of wisdom to offer up.  

I’ve started to notice the moments in my life when someone ‘listens’ to me by referencing their own experiences or beliefs.  

At dinner I express some stress I'm dealing with, and someone at the table tells me about how they also had a frustrating meeting at work. My experience is overlooked, I don't feel heard. 

I have my first heartbreak and my aunt lets me know that I am still young and that it's not as bad as I think. I still hurt, and I don't feel seen.

And in those moments, there is a missed opportunity. When we give someone our whole and undivided attention, we make them feel important and valued. And we experience the power of truly immersing ourselves in someone else’s world, rather than trying to pull them back into our own.

Don't get me wrong, I still catch myself in the act: letting my own experience cloud my ability to connect and hold space for the friend sitting across from me. But now, every time I notice myself slipping back into old habits, I simply reset. This simple act has helped me understand the people in my life on a deeper level and has helped me create friendships centered on mutual empathy and support, instead of mutual suffering and competition. Hopefully, I also give the people in my life a safe space where all their feelings are accepted and acknowledged, where they can express without fear of judgment and where they can feel validated in their own experience. 

Here are a few ways to start rethinking how you listen to the people around you: 

  1. Talk Less: More often than not, when a friend confides in you, its largely because they need to express their own experience. While sometimes it's great to let someone know you've been there and you understand where they are coming from, stay focused on what they are experiencing. 
  2. Breath More: When someone tells you something we often want to prove that we are really listening by interjecting with 'mmhm' or 'I think' or jumping to fill silence with advice. But silence can be a gift. It creates space for new pieces of the speaker's experience to emerge from that stillness. So the next time it sounds like someone has said their piece, take a deep breath before responding. 
  3. Be Curious: Opening up is like cracking yourself open and letting little slivers of yourself out to test the safety of the space you are in. So help the person you're talking with rest easy by asking questions that let them know that you want to know what's in there, you want to know what they are feeling, you want to know how they see the world. 

As you work on being present in your own interactions, I hope you notice your relationships are infused with warmth, that you start feeling more comfortable sharing parts of your own experience that might not be shiny and exciting - the parts that in fact make you human, just like the rest of us. I hope you turn to those you love, or those you might come to love, and feel able to say honestly: "I hear you. I see you. I know you." 

Pam Soffer