Becoming A Better Listener, Part 1
Have you ever heard the phrases, “you’re not listening to me” or “you don’t understand what I’m saying”? I’m willing to bet that you have! Good listening skills are crucial to communication and relationships, but we don’t often get taught how to actually be a good listener.
I’ve noticed that many of us tend to focus more on sharing stories than on the emotions, experiences, and nuances behind those stories. When having a conversation with another person, you may notice yourself pouncing in to share your own story when your partner names something that you are familiar with. I recently walked behind two women who were having a conversation about relationships. With her voice trembling, one of the women said that she had caught her boyfriend sending a flirtatious text message to another woman. Before she had the chance to share any further, her friend cut her off and blurted, “I once caught a boyfriend sending an email to his ex.” In that moment, the second woman seemed to be more concerned with showing her friend that she had a similar experience than she was with understanding what her friend was going through. While it can feel comforting to know that you are not alone in having a particular experience, this type of “me too” communication doesn’t allow for deeper, richer contact.
One of the first steps to becoming a better listener is to try to get a stronger sense of what the person you are communicating with is feeling. While it is important to recognize that you are not responsible for another person’s feelings, trying to better understand someone else’s experience can be a sign of care and respect.
Even when people aren’t talking directly about their feelings, there are myriad ways that they may purposefully or inadvertently hint at what is going on for them. Feelings can get conveyed through facial expressions, body posture, movement, breath, vocal tone, word choice, skin flushing, eye blinking, bodily tightness or relaxation, hand gestures, and so on. There are a ton of possibilities for where to direct your attention! Here are a few easy ways to practice gauging feeling states in other people:
- Sit in a cafe for a while and try to observe the people around you. Pick of the few aforementioned qualities to pay attention to. What do you think their body language says? What about their facial expressions? If you can hear them talking, what does the tone of their voice convey? You can also observe people on public transportation, in the grocery store, or walking down the street. Just try to be as discreet as possible, and keep a polite distance!
- Pick one quality to pay attention to for an extended period of time. Say you are curious about vocal tone. For a few days, try to notice the vocal tone of every person you talk to.
- Watch a reality TV show, and try to guess what each of the characters are feeling. Notice if there are times where a character says they are feeling one thing, but you get a sense that they are actually feeling something different.
- Watch a TV show with the sound off. Then try watching the same show with the sound on but your eyes closed. Notice how your perception differs when you don’t have access to one of your senses.
- Attend a social function or family event with people you know. Notice if it seems easier or harder to guess what people are feeling when you know them, versus when they are strangers.
In all of these situations, you are of course only guessing what the other person is feeling. In another post, I will write more about checking out your hypotheses and directly asking people how they feel. For now, the goal is to get practice in observing and trying to pay attention to the cues people send to signal what they are feeling.
While you are doing these exercises, you may also want to pay attention to what it is like for you to direct so much of your attention towards another person. Do you feel that you can retain your connection to yourself, or do you start to lose yourself when you try to watch others? Do you think you typically spend more time directing your energy inwards or outwards? Do you have any thoughts about why that is?
Interested in learning more listening skills? Call (415) 658-5738 or visit my Appointments page to set up a consultation.