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5 Ways to Become a Better Listener

Have you ever spaced out when someone was talking to you? Or have you ever talked to someone who you had a feeling wasn't listening? They were somewhere else.


Listening attentively is a capacity and skill that many don't have. And, it's typical for one person in a couple to be a better listener than the other. Sadly, a lapse in listening can result in pain and disconnection -- the one sharing left alone feeling neglected, abandoned, or humiliated.


Pouring your heart out to someone who tunes out mid conversation could surely lead to strife. But it's also an opportunity for greater understanding and connection. Curiosity and compassion, both for ourselves and our loved one, are the tools best applied in situations like these. Let me give you an example:


In the first years of their marriage, Vanessa frequently spaced out when her husband Mike was sharing the events of his work-day. Mike hated that! Vanessa's difficulty listening angered Mike to the point where they fought. He found it really hurtful.


Mike explained, "She doesn’t care about me enough to listen. This is especially angering when I'm saying something important to me. When I get mad, I punish her by being cold and distant,” two common protective defenses on the Change Triangle tool for emotional health. I appreciated his insight!


Conflicts arise because of knee-jerk assumptions made by both parties. like she doesn't care about what I say or he is mean to me even though I can't help it.


However, when two people caught in a conflict slow down and rewind to right before their connection suffered, newfound understanding can shed light on what's really happening for each person in those moments. Reserving judgment, and instead mustering authentic curiosity lays the groundwork for a lasting peace process.


Mike shared his hurt and anger with Vanessa. "It hurts me when you space out when I'm talking. Then I feel anger for being hurt."


Just from naming his emotions and letting Vanessa know how her behavior affected him, released something internally and allowed him to get more curious about Vanessa's experience. He wanted to understand what was happening for her in those moments when she "forget to listen." In truth, Vanessa's struggles with listening had been long-standing and had very little to do with Mike.


The ability to listen, which I am defining as an intention to comprehend what another person is saying, stems from multiple roots. We have natural inborn capacities for listening; and capacities that get cutivated or thwarted as a result of our most formative family experiences.


Some people's mind's are built with a natural inclination to float away. They are often artistic with a wonderful ability to day dream. The flip side is it's a real struggle to stay focused. That's just a quality of that person like having blue eyes and has nothing to do with anyone else.


Some people's minds get carried away by gripping associations. For example, if you mention something about your work, I might associate to my own job and what is on my to-do list. I get pulled away, unable to comprehend what you’re saying anymore.


Additionally, some people disassociate to cope with the underlying feelings and beliefs they have about listening or being talked at. If you grew up in a chaotic and loud household, with lots of shouting or lecturing, you might relate to this notion. The reasons we can't or won't listen can be deep and poignant.


Mike softened with the knowledge that there were deeper reasons for Vanessa's difficulty staying connected when Mike talked. He thought it had something to do with him being boring or Vanessa not caring. But Vanessa did care. And she felt ashamed that this was a problem, which made it hard to talk about.

 

Since addressing this listening dynamic head on, Mike and Vanessa have had many good discussions about his need to be listened to and her difficulty listening. This process has led to greater understanding of what is happening for them in these moments, easing the hurt feelings and reactivity when it happens. They even created some ways to tip the scales in their favor.


For example, Mike often cues Vanessa before launching into a conversation, Are you able to listen to me now? I want to share something important.


He has learned to wait patiently for her honest answer. Additionally, he works the Change Triangle to understand himself and his emotional responses.


Mike might follow up by asking Vanessa if she needs a minute to get into a listening state of mind. Or ask her if she’s fully present with him. She has done the internal work on herself to respond authentically instead of defensively.


No, actually, I’m not fully present. I am thinking about something that happened with the kids today. Give me a minute to get there, is something Vanessa might say.


Some of us were lucky. We were raised with lots of positive emotional responsiveness and authentic connection. We learned to listen by being listened to and responded to by our parents, much like a child in a bi-lingual family learns two languages without trying. If we grew up in a family where no one truly listened, where we were talked or yelled at, or where there was chaos all around us to the extent that we learned to shut out noise and human voices as protection, we will need to hone those listening skills. Tools and practice do make a difference.


With all that said, I've put together my 5 tips to create a better listener and 5 tips to help not-so-great listeners listen better. I hope they inspire you.


For the one who wants to be heard, 5 tips to create a better listener:


  1. Before you start speaking, ask if they are in a place to listen.

  2. Let them know that what you're about to say is important. Consider sharing how long you need their attention and if you want advice, support, or validation.

  3. Request eye contact. Eye contact can help hold a person's connection to you.

  4. If you see in their eyes or other non verbal communication that you've lost them, ask "Did you go away?" Or, "Did I lose you?" This helps them come back. Then you can pick up where you lost them. The sooner you notice they have "left the building," the better so you don't have to repeat too much of what you were saying.

  5. Each time they check out, take a deep breath, believe they care and can't help it, and ask if they are ready to listen again. Or take a break if you feel too irritated to continue. But try to own your feelings: "I am annoyed. I know you can't help it. When I calm down, we can try again."


For the one who struggles to listen, here are tips to listen better:


1) Actively access your curious mind. Get curious about your partner. 


How to practice: Slow down. Sit or stand still together. Look into your partner's eyes. Breathe deeply to calm your mind and body, feel your feet on the floor, and set the intention to get into a curious state of mind. When you have accessed some true curiosity in what your partner will share with you, scan your body up and down slowly so you can check into how your body is reacting -- the body never lies. Wait 30 seconds or more for your body sensations to come up into your conscious awareness. What sensations let you know you're in a curious state of mind. Feeling open is a marker of curiosity. Feeling connection and some energy towards your partner are other markers.


2) Listen to understand.


How to practice: Ask your partner to talk more slowly or rapidly to find the talking speed where you can best process what they are saying. Stop your partner if you don't understand what they are saying at a certain point. For example, my husband will sometimes start sharing about his business and get deep into the numbers of a spreadsheet, which I cannot follow. It's at this point that I will struggle to pay attention to him. I will interupt the conversation and say "I want to understand everything you're saying. Would you help me by talking much more slowly so I can stay with you?


3) Make sure you're not just waiting to talk.


How to practice: As you listen to your partner, try to simultaneously sense if you’re wanting to speak. If so, validate that natural impulse without judging yourself. Then, breathe deeply to slow down your body so you can notice and name the emotions and sensations that arise when you control the impulse to speak. Work the Change Triangle! Validate all your emotions and vow to tend to them later. Remind yourself you can talk and be heard soon. Just not now because now you're the one listening. If you cannot listen, stop and own that. Apologize and feel good about your ability to be accountable for your actions.  Stay positively connected. Let your partner know you want to listen but are struggling right now for whatever reason.


4) Imagine what the speaker is feeling as they are talking.


How to practice: As you listen closely to your partner share, listen with your eyes as well. Maintain eye contact, and try to feel what your partner is feeling. Tune into the tone of voice, body language, energy level, eyes, and facial expressions so you can better connect to their emotional message as well as their words. Are they excited? Sad? Upset?


5) Re-engage your curiosity. Listening is hard! Resist the temptation to judge yourself, or to give up. Simply reengage with your curiosity.


How to practice: Slow down. Keep trying to notice and name the emotions and sensations that arise when you try to listen. You may notice boredom, anger, sadness, fear, and more. Validate all your emotions and vow to tend to them at some point with curiosity in your self. Validate the natural desire to talk. Remind yourself you can talk and be listened to soon, just not now because now you're listening instead. .


Whether your partner forgets to listen or simply struggles with their attention, you can work together to improve and mitigate hurt by simply understanding how you affect each other. You can strive to both be compassionate to yourselves and to each other. The more you understand each other, the better these interactions will flow. Now that Mike understands Vanessa is not bored with him or willfully ignoring him, he doesn't get as upset. He still doesn't like it when Vanessa "forgets to listen" but now there's room to cut her some slack.


Setting an intention to listen and be honest when you can’t shows you care about your partner. If you weren’t listened to as a child, it may be hard to listen. But showing up and trying is all you have to do for greater and greater success and connection.

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