The Positive Power of Active Listening

03/20/2015 02:50 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015
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Yesterday, after speaking with a friend about a personal matter, I later realized I could hardly recall any specifics from our conversation despite having initiated the chat. I was both bothered by and curious about how this could happen and whether it was truly a rare occurrence. After giving the matter some serious thought, I realized, with regret, that it wasn't.

Looking back, I believe that I have gradually inched my way to becoming a reactive listener, which isn't really listening at all. In essence, you hear what you want to hear or start predicting what you think you're going to hear with the result being you tune out what the other person is actually saying. When this happens the message certainly is changed and the potential for a fulfilling, mutually beneficial conversation is lost.

Perhaps I've always been a reactive listener (just ask my mother), but I believe that becoming a family caregiver deepened these tendencies. It is my hope that my caregiving responsibilities can also help me evolve into a more Active Listener.

Active listening allows a person to fully comprehend what is being said and creates more positive conditions for a constructive and productive conversation.

Let's face it, as family caregivers we are constantly trying to stay a few steps ahead of the game, contemplating what might happen and how to react if it does happen. As a result, we end up living in a state of what if rather than what is!

You know the drill, "What if mom's fever doesn't break and I need to drive her to the doctor?" "What if my boss wants me to stay late today, who will take my wife to physical therapy?" "Dad's appointment looks like it's running late, what if I have to cancel dinner with friends for the third time?"

With so many thoughts, scenarios and what ifs competing for attention, it's easy to start developing automatic responses as a way of cutting to the chase. And this extends to the listening process by building storylines and prepared responses before an actual discussion even takes place. Sound familiar?

Let's take a common example of reactive listening: talking with an elderly parent about turning in their car keys. In preparation for this very difficult discussion, caregivers are consumed with fear for the safety of their loved one and for others on the road. In most cases the caregiver is going into the discussion with an underlying predisposition: For my mom or dad's safety and the safety of others they must be off the road. Period!

From mom or dad's perspective, they may not be thinking about safety the same way and certainly not with the same intensity. From my research, they believe they are safe enough and therefore what they're hearing is an adult child telling them they are no longer able to drive while revoking independence, which can diminish feelings of self-worth.

You can see the massive disconnect that will result when reactive listening is the driving force. In the end, you may get your way (but feel like hell in the process) and there is a good chance that mom or dad will feel dismissed and resentful because their feelings were neither acknowledged nor heard.

There is a wonderful quote by Drew Brees, the star quarterback for the New Orleans Saints (and a fellow Purdue alumnus), "Your actions are so loud I can't hear a word you're saying."

While you may think that you're a good listener, perhaps your actions indicate otherwise. To avoid this from happening, I've provided a few simple Active Listening suggestions to consider before your next discussion. I guarantee that they will make a positive difference in your life. They certainly have for me.

• When you encounter a person with a problem, don't immediately try to solve the issue or change their way of looking at things.

• Adopt the attitude that you want to take the time and thought to be an Active Listener. Value the opinions of others even when they don't align with yours.

Hear what the other person is saying, restate their points aloud in their words, not yours.

• Ensure that everyone's thoughts and feelings are clearly understood. Minimize defensiveness by avoiding criticism.

Frame your thoughts and responses in the context of both sides of the discussion. Be patient enough to truly consider the other person's position and perspective.

• Convey your respect for their thoughts and feelings while indicating your willingness to work on a solution together.

We all have important conversations ahead of us. But by practicing active listening we can help ensure that everyone walks away feeling truly heard and therefore appreciated.

Help yourself. Help others.