Please Just Listen
When I ask you to listen to me
And you start giving advice,
You have not done what I asked.
When I ask you to listen to me
And you begin to tell me why
I shouldn’t feel that way,
You are trampling on my feelings.
When I ask you to listen to me
And you feel you have to do something
to solve my problem,
you have failed me, strange as that may seem.
Listen! All I asked was that you listen.
Don’t talk or do-just hear me…
And if you want to talk,
wait a minute for your turn-and I’ll listen
Communication is critical to every relationship that touches our lives, whether it be with our own children or the person who bags our groceries at the supermarket. Our ability to communicate will largely determine our success as a parent, as a life-partner, as a worker, and as a community member. One of the most critical pieces of communication, is our ability to listen. When you listen, and the other person feels heard, anger is diffused, trust is built and conflicts are resolved.
There is a difference, however, between listening and hearing. It is very important to be an active listener, in order for the other person to feel they are heard. Failure to be aware of this distinction is often a source of conflict within relationships (She says he never listens, he says he was listening the whole time). So, how can you tell the difference between active listening and inactive listening? Here are some tips:
1. Check your body language. As the listener, what is your body language communicating. Is it closed off? Are you on your phone? Where is your eye contact? An active listener is fully engaged physically. Their body is facing the person talking, they are making eye contact (and not looking over their shoulder towards the TV), and they are not distracted by their surroundings (like their phone). Your body language speaks volumes, without ever saying a word. An active listener is physically telling the other person that they are valued and are receiving my full attention.
2. What did you hear them say? As clinicians, we frequently reframe and reflect on what our clients are saying, to help them gain perspective. This can be done within relationships as well. By reframing or reflecting on what you are hearing someone say, not only are you validating that you are indeed listening, but you are fully engaged with the other person. After listening, try saying something like “so, what I am hearing you say is” and summarize the points they mentioned. This allows them to know you are listening and are fully engaged.
3. Ask clarifying questions. It is important that the other person feel heard, and you can help them feel this way by asking relevant and clarifying questions to help you be on the same page as them. Try asking “open ended” questions. These are questions that can’t be answered with a “yes or no.”
An example of close-ended questions: Did you have fun at school?
An example of open-ended questions: What are some things that happened in school today? I can’t wait to hear about your day.
Another important concept to be aware of when listening, is when and how to listen to someone who is exhibiting anger. When someone is angry, they are attempting to express an emotion that can be difficult to manage. Many therapists believe that anger is a “secondary emotion” and underneath anger is either hurt or fear. People struggle with identifying problems when they are angry, and they lash out “sideways.” They are reacting and not interacting. Before engaging in communication with someone who is angry, it is important to assess your particular situation, and ask yourself this question. Do I feel safe? People can be violent or abusive when they are angry. If you feel unsafe, remove yourself from the situation quickly. This alone can help de-escalate the person. Remember that your safety needs to be your top priority.
If you feel it is safe to engage in communication with this person, then helping them de-escalate can be a powerful tool at your disposal. To help someone calm down, and feel they are being heard, it is important to listen effectively. Here are some tips:
1. Listen openly to what the angry person has to say. Do not become defensive or attempt to defend another position. When people get angry, it means something isn’t right for them. Try to hear their hurt. This is not a time to take things personally or become defensive. Reacting negatively to their anger is like pouring gasoline on a fire.
2. Investigate their anger. Ask them questions to help them clarify their anger. For example, What triggered your anger? What are you feeling? What do you hope to achieve from this situation? Remember, anger is a secondary emotion—try to help them decipher what emotions are the true source of their anger.
3. Validate their feelings. Whatever they are feeling is okay. Let them know they have a right to feel those feelings. Be careful not to judge their feelings. Try to see things from their point of view and provide empathy whenever possible. For example, don’t say: “You shouldn’t feel that way.” This is also not a time to tell them to smile. Validation is allowing another person to feel their feelings-the good, bad, and the ugly ones. When a person feels validated, they feel understood. Denying a person’s feelings can escalate his or her anger.
4. Encourage expression. Expressing anger in a harmless way helps a person release their angry energy. Some people listen to music; take a walk; run; exercise; or write a letter, poem, or an entry in their journal. What works for one person may not work for another. Problems do not occur because someone is angry, they occur when people handle their anger inappropriately.
5. Clarify your position. If the person has been angry with you, then now is the time to express your thoughts and feelings about the situation. Clarify your own behavior. Explain your thoughts and intentions and apologize for any harm you may have caused. Once again, this is not a time to become defensive. This is a time to build understanding. You have given them a chance to express their feelings and now it is your turn. “I” messages can be helpful. For example: “I wanted to respect your space.” “I thought you wanted to spend time together.” “I am sorry you felt rejected.”
6. Assist them in working out their own solution. Don’t tell them what they should do, or how to do it. Do not try to become “Mr. or Mrs. Fix It.” Instead, ask them what they want to achieve. Ask questions like: “What are your options?” or “What do you want to see happen?” Help them brainstorm alternatives and look at the short-term and long-term consequences of each. If they get stuck, ASK them if they would like some suggestions. It is important during this step to be respectful and not to become a “control freak.”
Remember: Listening often calms an angry person.
We hope these tips help you become a better and more effective listener. If you feel you need additional support, or have any questions on how to improve other forms of communication within your relationships, contact us. We are here to help.