As parents, some of the things our kids want to tell us are, well, childish. Although we love them, we are sometimes busy or preoccupied and paying close attention to what happened at the playground is not top of our list. As partners, friends, siblings and descendants, people talk to us about a wide variety of things that matter to them and paying attention can be difficult.
But it is worth the trouble.
When I worked at the National Semiconductors headquarters in Santa Clara, CA, the company provided easy access to great training and one of the courses I took was Active Listening. The instructor was a soft-spoken lady who impressed me as a good listener and someone who knew a great deal about people, and during the course I realized just how poorly I had been listening…
At the end of the class, I left with a list of actions and behaviors that constituted active listening and with the advice that it was important to practice them, but I felt something was missing from those instructions.
Over time, particularly after I trained to be a life coach, I read more about relationships and emotional intelligence and I think I have found an underlying description that unites the techniques and makes the whole thing seem like common sense.
What’s in it for me?
Even as you read this post, revisit your mental responses and you are likely to discover that you are reading everything with this question in your mind. “What can get out of reading this?” “What does this say about me and my personal life?” “How can I use any of this to feel better?”
No matter how you phrase this question, it is OK. We all do it. Human beings truly follow Descartes’ philosophy “I think, therefore I am”. As far as their subconscious is concerned, they are the only ones alive and therefore the only ones that matter. Anything they see, hear or experience is almost immediately translated into how it affects us.
Regrettably, when we interact with others, we forget that everything they say to us is not about us. It is all about them. Even when they talk directly to us and keep saying “you, you, you”, they are still trying to change their own situation and their own feelings.
Once we understand this, we have a good foundation for listening. As we listen, we just need to keep asking ourselves, “What is he/she trying to say about himself/herself?”
At the same time, we have to resist asking ourselves, “What’s in it for me?” and that is the hard part.
When we meet some stranger we will never meet again, there is no relationship. But in most other cases, every interaction we have with another person adds or subtracts from our relationship with them. Therefore, whatever effort we may have to do today, it is likely to be rewarded later, possibly more than once.
This is especially true when the other person really needs help and cannot untangle their own emotions on their own. Stress blocks our memory and our creativity, which seriously limits our ability to fix our own problems. However, when our stress is reduced with someone else’s help, we can be very creative about thanking them and we remember the good deed.
So although putting our own “stuff” aside and focusing on another person is unnatural and quite difficult, remembering that this will only take a little while and that the relationship will benefit for a long time can help us truly listen. Kids grow up to be teenagers and then they become adults. How much attention you give them matters at every stage.
What are they really saying?
Humans are emotional creatures. We pretend to be all sophisticated and rational, but when we have a strong feeling, it often takes over our thinking and makes us act in ways we would never have planned or thought reasonable. That is just how we are wired.
So when someone says, “I’m going to die”, they may have just found out they have terminal cancer or they may just be exaggerating. When they say, “Leave me alone”, they may want you to go away forever or they may want you to stop talking about a particular issue until they feel better about it themselves.
You never know.
But often, you can figure it out from the context, from your experiences with the person and from your own reactions and get pretty close. You just have to look beyond the words and ask yourself, “What kind of FEELING is he/she trying to convey?” “What is he/she trying to FEEL as a result of this conversation?”
Parents are often stumped by their child screaming at the store checkout for something they want to buy. It is downright embarrassing to be in this situation. Given that the child “clearly wants the teddy bear”, the (very loud) conversation seems to be about whether or not to buy the teddy bear. But it is not.
Children often test their parents’ boundaries as a healthy part of growing up. What they are trying to feel is safe. When parents are confident, their boundaries are clear and they have no problems communicating them and enforcing them, so their children think they are confident and reliable and they feel safe.
But when the parents are shaky and succumb to pressure, their children cannot trust them to be a source of comfort in time of need. Parental weakness and lack of confidence are scary for kids, so they keep pushing the parents in hope of finding a solid boundary, perhaps a little further out.
When a child wails at the checkout, “I want a teddy bear”, they may very well be saying, “I need you to show that you love me and I want to feel safe and this is the only way I can think of getting these feelings”.
So keep looking for the underlying feeling or for the feeling the other person is trying to get. If you manage to address that feeling directly, a magical thing will happen and the person will relax noticeably.
Feelings are always right
No matter how different another person might feel from you, their feelings are never wrong. Our feelings are a product of our genetics, our upbringing and our particular point of view in the moment and they are always the only ones we can have, so they are never ever wrong.
And, of course, we all have feelings all the time. That is only natural.
Never judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins
– Native American proverb
When we listen to someone else complaining, raging or obsessing about something we would feel differently about, it may be difficult for us to feel the same, but this still does not make them wrong. People always do the best they can with what they have and this always makes them OK.
Another very important thing everyone wants from a conversation is to feel validated, to feel accepted, to feel that they are OK. Most people feel bad about feeling bad and see it as a kind of failure. When we tell them it is OK to feel bad occasionally and we still think they are good, we can really help.
So forget “smile and nod” and know that there is a big difference between being quiet and listening. Silence is not golden. Attention is.
Be there for real when your kids, your partner, your parents and your friends talk to you and they will love you for it. Listen with respect (no matter how young the other person is), address the other person’s emotions and reassure them that doing their best means they are good enough for you.
They will thank you for it when they can.
And when you need them to listen to you, they will.