Help is as Easy as Listening
One role of every life-partner is to create a caring, respectful relationship with our partner (and all whom we love), encouraging lovers and family to see you as a strong support in their experience, and encouraging them to grow and develop as separate and unique individuals.
There are many ways to show our loved ones that we love them – by saying “I love you”, cooking, cleaning, shopping, giving gifts, etc. One of the most important ways we show our loved ones that we love them is by being present, in our hearts, available to listen. When we practice ACCEPTANCE, GENUINENESS and EMPATHY, we give the most precious gift that one human can offer another.
No one can solve another’s problems. Even if we’re sure we know what they should do. And none but me can solve my problems, no matter how much I wish they could.
Bringing a “helping attitude” to our relationships –treating everyone with dignity, respect, understanding, trust, kindness, compassion, honesty and love – lovers put aside their own agenda, their own fantasy of what would be best for their partner (or child) and instead to trust that the person who has the problem, dilemma, upset is the only person who can fix or solve it
The skills that are most helpful when someone we love is in upset (angry, sad, frustrated, yelling, crying, interrupting, etc,) or is having a problem, include:
- Attending – Being present with the person, making appropriate eye contact and maintaining open body posture.
- Listening in silence – Being quiet as the person you are with talks, or while they are in silence.
- Acknowledging – Non-evaluative responses, letting the speaker know you heard what they said (“Hmm,” “Really,” “I see,” “Yes,” etc.)
- Asking questions that “open the door” – Open-ended invitations for the participant to talk (“Would you like to talk about it?” “I’d like to hear more.”)
- Active Listening – Reflecting back the facts and especially the feelings the speaker has just expressed.
The most important communication tool or technique that we have available to use with our family and/or lovers is called Active Listening. Simply put, Active Listening is reflecting back to the speaker the facts and feelings they just expressed. Whenever we’re speaking with someone who we think is in any upset or is experiencing a problem, this is a great technique to help that person begin to deal with their problem.
Often, we think we are helping by offering advice or telling the person that everything will be all right. While these behaviors may sometimes be appropriate in some situations they are not what we mean by Active Listening, and can, in fact, prevent the very communication we were hoping to encourage. All that we really need to do is to reflect back the facts and feelings just expressed.
How to Active Listen
The key skill in Active Listening is the ability to reflect back to the speaker the facts and more importantly the feelings the speaker just told you. You do this by speaking the communication back to the person either by repeating it or paraphrasing it.
Them: I’m shaking so badly I can hardly stand up.”
You: I really hear that you’re feeling afraid and unsteady”
Letting go of any thought that you know what this person needs to say or do, and trusting that as the person speaks his or her own thinking will get clearer, continue to reflect what you are hearing. Sometimes the speaker will disagree with your words. Good! That helps the speaker get clarity. Sometimes the speaker’s story will ramble away from his or her original topic. Good! That helps the speaker get clarity. Sometimes the speaker will lapse into silence. Reflect that silence with silence. The person being listened to will let you know when they are done or want something else. Continue reflecting facts and feelings until the speaker let’s you know s/he is done.
If you are uncertain what the speaker is actually meaning it is appropriate to ask for clarification, encouraging the speaker to elaborate further or define what they have already said.
Them: I’m shaking so bad I think I might be having an episode.”
You: “I’m not sure I know what kind of episode you mean.”
As you listen, notice the speaker’s posture, how they are holding their body, how they are breathing, how fast or slow they are talking, what expression is on their face. Often by reflecting what the speakers body is “saying” you help the speaker get clarity.
You: “You look like you want to cry.” “Your face looks angry to me.”
After you get a sense that the speaker has emptied, ask if there is anything they need, want, or desire.
Common Listening Errors
When Active Listening bogs down or is rejected, often one or more of the following mistakes has been made.
Overshooting – exaggerating the feeling.
Adding – expanding or generalizing
Rushing – Anticipating the next thought
Analyzing – Interpreting the underlying motives
Undershooting – minimizing the feeling
Subtracting – Skipping or reducing
Lagging – Not moving on to the next thought
Parroting – Repeated word-for-word repetition
Some Obstacles to Effective Active Listening
- Ordering, Commanding, Directing: “Stop being so hysterical, just tell me what’s wrong.”
- Warning, Threatening, Promising: “If you don’t stop yelling I’m out of here.”
- Moralizing, Shoulds, Oughts: “You really should try to calm down”
- Advice, Proposing Solutions, Suggestions: “If I were you I’d just put it out of my mind.”
- Logic, Argument, Teaching: “If what you just said is true then logically you shouldn’t be upset at all.”
- Judging, Criticizing, Shame: “I think you’re just not trying hard enough”
- Praise, Agreement: “You’re so good at solving problems, I’m sure you’ll be fine”
- Name Calling, Labels, Stereotyping: “You’re so depressed.”
- Analysis, Diagnosis, Interpretation: “I think you’re just trying to get attention.”
- Reassurance, Sympathy, Consoling: “Don’t worry, after a good night’s sleep you’ll be fine.”
- Probing, Questions, Interrogating: “What do you really want?” “What happened to you?
- Sarcasm, Diverting, Withdrawal: “I know just what you’re talking about. The same thing happened to me.” “Welcome to my world.”
It is important to remember that the person who has the problem or upset is the person who has their solution to the problem or upset.
Just love them
Helping our loved ones is usually simple, but not always easy. When we were growing up very few of us learned listening skills or saw those skills modeled very often. More typically we experienced being told what to feel, what to think, what to want. We want our home to be one of the places where we experience being loved and accepted as we are, with no conditions or performance to be met. As parents, lovers, spouses we endeavor to provide that unconditional love and acceptance. And our attempts will be appreciated even as we are still learning the helping skills.