Listening is a skill most of us, if not all of us, think we posses. Most people with customer-facing roles or caring roles are trained to listen. We grow up being told to listen to instructions or to pay attention. But how well do we honestly do this? One time running a non-judgemental listening activity in a school a 6th Form student told me that when I set the activity he thought it was pointless. He knows how to listen. After the activity he reflected that what most of us do all day is hear. Listening is a completely different skill set.
I’d completely agree with him. Most of us probably think we listen but we actually hear. When we listen we need to be fully engaged and in the moment. We need to minimize distractions as far as humanly possible. We need to show that we are listening. And in some cases we need more or less of a response. So how do we know what to or what not to say when listening is paramount?
Show You’re Listening. This can be a hard one. Listening doesn’t mean you can’t say anything. Worrying about our responses can cause us to miss what’s being said. Communication is both verbal and non-verbal. Show you’re listening by gentle eye-contact. No interrogation like stares here please! If you’re sitting turn your chair to an indirect angle instead of sitting directly opposite each other. Why sit? Go for a walk. Being mobile and having a focus can encourage people to speak. And what about verbal? Making encouraging noises – you know the ones – can be great. Just don’t over do it. Show you’re listening by reflecting back or checking in. “You said xxxx, have I understood that correctly?” or “It sounds like xxx is causing you a lot of stress/sadness/fear/guilt. Is that right?”.
It’s About Them, Not You. Don’t subvert the hierarchy. It can be tempting to jump in with advice or solutions. If we’ve had a similar experience we may be eager for others to learn from it. We want to share our thoughts, feelings and possibly fixes. We might think sharing our experience will help the person feel less alone. Normally this comes from a good place. Often we don’t realise we’re doing it. We can show them they’re not alone and we want to help by saying so. “You’re not alone in this” or “I’m here for you” do the job without switching the focus to ourselves.
I Know What That’s Like. *cue eyeroll* Use this one with caution. As with the earlier point this quickly becomes a segue into talking about ourselves. More than that we all have individual experiences of the same event. Even if we’ve been through exactly the same thing we may respond differently. We know what it’s like for us but not for them. If you are going to use this phrase be prepared to back it up. Keep it short and practical. There needs to be a learning point. The key to offering any advice is always exactly that: offer. They may or may not want to try it and that’s completely their right.
I Don’t Know What to Say. Less is more. You don’t have to have the answers. The key here really is listening. Being empathetic means engaging in what they’re saying and acknowledging it. Giving them the space to be heard and get something off their chest can be incredibly cathartic. In these situations, particularly when someone shares something quite serious, my favourite thing to say is “I can’t imagine how difficult this is for you but I’m so glad you told me”. In one sentence you acknowledge their hurt, that you care for them and reinforce that speaking about it was right thing to do.
Time is of the Essence. We’re busy people. If you’re going to be supportive and empathetic make sure you have the time to do it. Glancing at the clock because you’ve got to be somewhere. Or fidgeting because you need to run out the door in a few minutes. Doesn’t good listening make. Better to say ‘I’d love to talk but now isn’t a good time. I could do xxx’. Be specific about re-arranging when you can be there for them. This isn’t about ignoring them but making sure that when you are there for them you truly are there.
I Officially Know Nothing. None of us are Google. We don’t have all the answers. Better to say “I don’t feel like I know much about this. Could you tell me more?”. In one sentence you’ve shown your interest and encouraged them to talk. That can only be a good thing. I’d use this sentence even if I have an idea of what might help. Everyone’s experience whether or a mental or physical health problem, a break up, divorce, bereavement, redundancy etc. will be different. It’s important to acknowledge that for ourselves. It prevents us making assumptions.
Don’t Assume. There’s no one size fits all for what might help in any given situation. People’s experiences run the breadth of all life experiences. If you’ve been in the same situation or know someone who has. Even if you’ve read a blog on the subject. Don’t insist that what worked for you or the other person will work for this one. Why should it? We’re all different people, having different experiences which will require their own unique solutions.
No Judgements. Listening is often called active listening or non-judgemental listening. To really connect with someone we need to put our own thoughts and feelings aside. This means our opinions, judgements and prejudices. Easier said than done. I think we can all acknowledge that when met with a judgemental response most of us will recoil. We’re far less likely to want to talk to that person or possibly anyone again. We learn to fear people’s reactions. The best way to end a conversation is with a judgemental response. These can be both verbal and non-verbal. Body language can speak volumes.
At Least. In the words of Brene Brown “rarely does an empathetic response begin at least” (for the excellent sympathy vs. empathy video click here). Think back to when you wouldn’t eat your food as a child. Did your parents remind you there were starving children in Africa? Someone being worse off than you is tragic. No-one is suggesting it isn’t. But other people’s pain and circumstances doesn’t erase your own. Don’t shame or embarrass someone into feeling guilty for their thoughts or emotions. It’s also not our place to decide how bad or not someone’s situation is. If they’re hurting than their pain is real. That’s what we work with.
Use Silence. I believe we’ve lost the art of a comfortable silence. Most of us can’t sit with silence anymore. We’re tempted to fidget or most often to fill it. At some point silence became the loss of something rather than something in it’s own right. Silence can be comforting to be people. Just sitting with someone can be helpful. Sometimes the silence means someone is finding the confidence or the words to speak. Filling that silence with your own thoughts can stop them from speaking. Silences often feel longer than they are. I’m not suggesting you count the seconds but use silence effectively. Let it sit for a minute or two. Give people time to speak. If you feel that it’s gone on too long or that people seem uncomfortable then speak.