2021 has been a year of challenges.
The pandemic has created physical and emotional distance between ourselves, our friends, and our families. Politics has exploited and driven deep rifts along ideological lines, with little room for compromise or reconciliation. Defining a “New Normal” has become increasingly difficult and elusive.
And then there’s the holidays.
For many of us, these situations have fostered a great deal of fear, sadness, fatigue, and, in many cases, anger. We’re tired. And we’re tired of being tired. Our tempers are short, and we have increasingly less patience for the frustrations of others.
“I don’t want to hear it,” has become a constant and consistent refrain. We watch anyone with feelings referred to as “snowflakes,” and indeed “triggering” people with political differences has become a national sport. Both sides of every aisle seem to take delight in shutting up and shutting down opposing thoughts, feelings, and points of view.
We want our own complaints heard, of course. We want our feelings expressed. We want our thoughts on the record.
But it seems we’ve given up on listening.
There can be no moving forward, within a relationship, within a community, or within a society, without listening and understanding.
We don’t need to agree. We don’t need to see things the same way. We do, however, need to grant one another space and time for sharing thoughts, feelings, and ways of seeing.
As parents, partners, friends, colleagues, and members of the community, it is time to rebuild our ability to communicate. It is time for us to retrain ourselves in receptivity.
It is time, once again, to listen.
How To Listen
While hearing is a sense that the majority of us have been gifted with from birth, listening is something else entirely. Rather than an innate talent, listening requires quite a bit of work and self-management to master. In order for listening to become instinctive, we must foster a great many habits, starting with the following:
1. Focus more on being interested than being interesting.
Check your ego at the door, and refrain from marketing yourself in the moment. Oftentimes, we sacrifice the opportunity to listen and/or learn on the altar of sarcasm. Someone flashes anger at us, and we give them a personally-satisfying cutting remark, an I-told-you-so, or a deflecting comment.
Scoring a point has become more important than understanding.
And this isn’t just limited to conversations with friends, co-workers, and strangers. Even parents suffer from this bad habit when speaking with their children:
After a long day navigating the trials of work and adult interactions, we often find the issues facing our children trivial or inconsequential. We were kids once. We know this moment, however important it might seem to them, will pass. Therefore, even well-meaning and otherwise alert parents can find themselves guilty of brushing aside a child’s complaint or signs that their child isn’t handling a situation well. “You’ll be fine,” we say with a smile as we move on to something else, but the issue remains both real and ongoing for our child.
Attention to emotional queues is critical. Instead of concentrating on sounding clever or above the fray, concentrate on the thoughts and needs of the person in front of you.
2. Recognize the person across from you as valuable, and make them feel that they are so.
We bring a lot of baggage into our conversations with friends, family, colleagues, and even strangers. We feel we know them. We know their habits. We know their flaws. “He’s always like that.” “She’s just a nervous person.” “I know a dozen guys just like this one.”
When we enter a conversation with preconceived notions about the other person’s character and negative traits, we set up walls that have to be surmounted in order for us to listen. We make it harder to diagnose what is really being said and what is truly being felt.
Instead, we simply interact according to the usual script, accomplishing nothing.
Want to toss away the script and know the person across from you? Set aside any prejudices, impressions, or stories you’ve generated about them. Give them the benefit of the doubt. See them as intrinsically good, valuable, and worthy of your time. Speak to them as if they are the very best versions of themselves.
3. Be mindful of the dissonance between how you see yourself and how the person across from you might see you.
We are typically blind to our own communication weaknesses.
Often, when we think we are coming across as helpful, we might instead be perceived as intrusive. When we think we are being humorous, others might simply find us rude or irreverent.
Confidence is often mistaken as arrogance.
Passion is seen as impulsivity.
Strength is seen as rigidity.
Energy is seen as nervousness.
Inquisitiveness is seen as a prelude to judgement.
While the job is to listen to what’s being said rather than to focus on your own performance, train yourself to be aware of how others might perceive your “best traits.”
This is of special concern when you are a parent talking with your teen, as each conversation is weighted down by disappointments and tensions from previous interactions both big and small.
Deflect these tensions by acknowledging them:
“I know I can seem judgmental. I know I’ve gotten angry with you about your actions in the past. But, in this moment, I am going to listen without judgement. I want to understand what you’re feeling. I don’t want to punish you for it.”
4. Be vulnerable.
Don’t pretend to have answers you don’t. Don’t pretend to sport virtues that elude you. If you are having trouble dealing with your own feelings in the conversation, be they sadness or anger, own up to them. Admit that fault aloud, and let the person across from you know that you too are struggling to combat such feelings.
“I’m not always good at managing my emotions either. It is especially difficult these days. I can’t promise that some of the things you’re going to say won’t upset me, but I can promise that I will do my best to listen and understand rather than argue.”
5. Manage your emotions.
The most difficult part of truly listening is maintaining focus on the other person’s words and feelings rather than on the effect those words and feelings are having us. Nervous people often make us feel nervous. Words directed at us in anger will trigger, out of innate defensiveness, our own anger, prompting us to list our own set of grievances.
This is all perfectly natural, of course, but giving in to these negative feelings, shouting back or meeting frustration with frustration, will simply enter us in a repetitive loop from which we can’t escape.
In a heated moment, when you feel yourself becoming angry or hurt, be it before or during the conversation, don’t let those feelings take over and don’t deny or ignore them. Instead, do the following:
- React. Acknowledge your own feelings rather than denying them or pushing through with them hanging alongside your words. Tell yourself: I’m upset. I’m angry. (About everything she is saying, a single slight or comment, or the situation itself.) And I own that I’m angry.
- Release. Let go of those feelings. Recognize that they are real, and likely justified, but that they will not feed the solution. If you are feeling a particularly strong moment of anxiety, try a quick and simple Box Breathing technique to move your mind and your body from red alert to yellow alert.
- Re-center yourself. Remember who you are in this moment. A parent trying to love and help your child. A partner speaking with a stressed-out spouse. A friend working through a problem with a colleague. The conversation is not about your feelings. The conversation is about theirs.
- Refocus. What have I been hearing so far from the person in front of me? What queues has she been giving me? Anger comes from fear and vulnerability. What is she afraid of about the situation and/or herself? In what ways is she vulnerable in this moment?
- Re-Engage. Return to the conversation ready to get answers to those questions and to help her find said answers.
6. Help the person across from you define and own their feelings.
Rather than deflecting or defending against their feelings, offer questions with suggested definitions that allow them to agree or amend those emotions.
For example, if your teen comes to you crying and shouting about an argument with your spouse, rather than simply saying “I understand you’re upset, but you need to calm down,” try something like: “I’ll bet you feel like we never understand, isn’t that true?”
A prompt such as this, followed by others, will allow the other person to take a moment to articulate exactly what they are feeling and move them from a place of intense emotion to a place where they can discuss the situation.
Such prompts will inevitably be met with initial anger and even sarcasm, but, when applied repeatedly and with honest interest and care, the person’s need to be understood will ultimately lead to articulation of their thoughts and feelings.
And that, in the end, is the goal: To move the person across from you from anger to consideration to dialogue.
7. Practice. Practice. Practice.
Listening is a skill. And like any skill, it has to be cultivated, nurtured, and practiced repeatedly before it can become second nature. In particular, focus on understanding the roots of your own feelings, emotions, and reactions by concentrating on the following:
- Physical Awareness. What physical reactions does my body have when I am upset? Does my skin get flush or pale? Do my hands go rigid or do they take up a protective posture? Does my mouth feel dry? Do I swallow repeatedly? Do I see these or other traits in others when they are upset? Learn your “tells” and the “tells” of those around you.
- Emotional Awareness. When I feel something, what exact emotion is it? Is it anxiety or something else? Am I energetic or nervous? Am I angry or afraid? If I am afraid, what exactly am I afraid of? What produced this emotion? Again, look at both your own emotions and the emotions of those around you for exact cause and effect.
- Impulse Awareness. What do these feelings make me want to do? Do I feel like hitting something or someone? Do I feel like escaping? Do I feel like shouting, pushing, running, hiding? What inclinations do these feelings produce?
- Consequence Awareness. If I were to follow these impulses, what would likely happen? I could flash a middle finger at the driver in front of me who just cut me off. He could then follow me to my destination. We could then, in turn, get into a physical altercation. Best case scenario, I could enjoy the temporary satisfaction of punching him in the face followed by the long-term inconvenience of going to court and/or jail. Worst case scenario, he could pull a gun from his glove box and I could die. Follow the possible narratives that could build from allowing unmanaged emotions to rule.
- Solution Awareness. What would be a better way of dealing with this? A guy cuts me off at the intersection, I engage in a brief breathing exercise, and let it go. A co-worker speaks to me rudely, I take a few moments to gather myself and my feelings and kindly engage with her while making my own boundaries clear.
- Benefits Awareness. If I apply the above solution, successfully managing my emotions, what would the benefits be?
Taking moments each day to analyze both successful and failed instances of emotional management will allow you to better understand when you should have listened rather than acted and what words or behavior might have better helped in the given situation.
These are just a few suggestions for building your listening skills. The list of tactics to apply to one’s self and to one’s interactions with others is exhaustive. Think of the above suggestions as an introduction to your own investigations into the art of listening.*
None of us are perfect.
Even the most skilled amongst us don’t always get it right. We’re going to fail as often as we succeed, but the measure of our worth can be found in our commitment to bettering ourselves and the lives of others.
Give yourself some grace. Give some grace to your children, your family, your friends, and everyone else you share your day with. We’re all having a difficult time. We all deserve a little kindness and understanding. We all need to pull ourselves up, take a breath, and acknowledge what each of us is going through.
We all need to lend an ear.
We all need to listen.