Most people don't like to see others suffer and react to ease discomfort in three popular ways.
They avoid a person's emotional breakdown, jump into fix-it-mode, or begin rewriting their story for them in a positive light.
Although people have the best intentions to help, these methods leave the person feeling invalidated and even add to their emotional frustration or sadness.
I've found that people can do these three things on their own. The reason your friend wants to share their emotional stress or upset with you, is not for you to take it on, it's for them to feel heard and to express their story out loud.
So what if we practiced something new and different?
What if we just listened?
If anyone's ever worked with a coach you'll know that one of the concepts of coaching is goal-oriented thinking. This means that the coach will try to keep you from spinning in your story.
The concept is that the more we re-tell our drama, the more it keeps recreating it in the present moment. While I 100 perecent believe in coaching, I also believe it serves best in a time and place.
It's proven that there can be great healing in the retelling of a trauma or emotional upset. The telling itself is the catharsis, or therapy.
Think about the last time you were stressed, had an emotional upset, or experienced a slight trauma. My guess is that your first desire was to be able to share it with a close friend or support person. We like to walk around in our story with someone as witness. The witness itself is a powerful companion.
When we jump to solve, fix, or reframe someone's story too soon, we take away what the person needs from us, which is being there as witness.
This is fantastic news for the listener, because it means that the pressure is off. You, as listener, don't need to be a brilliant-therapist-problem-solver-wise-guru. You need only to be there as companion and go on the journey with your friend.
For fixer people this may seem pointless,
but trust me -
it's often the most powerful thing you can do.
So how do we begin to do this for our friends and loved ones? Here are 5 simple things you can do to instantly become a better listener.
1. Preface the conversation:
- As the listener, preface a conversation by asking something like, "What are you looking for right now? Would you like feedback/advice or do you just want me to listen?"
- As the speaker, do the same thing. Tell the listener what you'd like from them, so there's no confusion.
Ex. "Something happened today that I want to talk about. I'm not looking for advice or an answer. I'd like you to just listen. Thanks."
Paraphrasing is reflecting what the person said back to them. It shows that you're listening, helps you gain clarity, and allows the person to feel heard.
One of the most important things is to repeat back the person's exact words. The words a person chooses are important and have specific meaning to them. If Joe says they felt "frantic" but you repeat back they felt "stressed," it's not the same thing, and Joe can feel that you're not listening.
You may feel a bit cheesy when you first start this until you find your own variations. Until then here are a few examples I like. Start with the phrase below and then follow with a brief sentence or two about what they said.
- It sounds like . . .
- What I'm hearing is that . . .
- What I hear you saying is . . .
- You can also ask for clarification after the statement by saying, "What I'm hearing is X, Y, Z is that correct?"
3. Reflect Feeling:
Reflecting feeling is like paraphrasing but instead of reflecting content you're reflecting feeling. Some basic examples:
- I hear/sense that you're feeling . . .
- You seem to be conflicted about . . .
- I hear a lot of different feelings - anger, sadness, confusion - and I also hear that you care a lot about Joe. Does that sound right?
4. When in Doubt, Silence Is Your Friend:
Silence can be uncomfortable and so we fill it with words. When we don't do this we allow the person to sit in their discomfort, and to think about their story and what they've said. When we don't rush in to help them feel better, the person can have a moment of insight.
- Try it: Instead of jumping in the silence, let it be there. Nod your head or say something simple like, "Yeah." Then WAIT. Your friend will start talking again and often it will be a deeper insight or connection.
Silence is powerful and it is a friend.
5. Find Creative Ways to Practice Listening:
My example: Voxer
This past year, a friend introduced me to Voxer so we could stay connected with each other's lives. It's an iPhone ap., where you hold a button on your screen like a walkie-talkie and leave messages (I think up to 15 min) that a friend listens to like a voicemail. You can also form groups.
The cool thing about it is that you can leave messages at anytime of the day/night because you don't have to call the person's phone. At the beginning, it felt strange to talk about my day without interruption, but I discovered a few interesting things from it:
- It allows me to listen to my friend gush about her goals, dreams, and struggles. I get to take it all in without the stress of having to respond in the moment.
- I listen intently because I want to respond to her key things in my return Vox.
- I've noticed, from group Voxes, that I get to know so much about people when they're forced to talk about their stuff without interruption. I find little gems of wisdom, places where people respond to something I've said that make me feel honored and heard, and spur the moment funny, random stories.
- It's been an interesting experience of talking out loud to myself and connecting my own solutions. More than anything it feels great to be heard and to know that someone who cares about me is listening to my message and will respond.
In our society there are so many people wanting to be heard, yet so many missed opportunities for connection. Listening is an underestimated skill that is vital for health and healing.
Practice being a listener and you'll soon discover the power listening has.
*This blog (and audio) first appeared on zzoccolante.com