Education Hour: Transformative Listening

Most of this content comes from a course on “Mindful Communication” taught by Oren Jay Safer. Much of it will be in his book, Say What You Mean, which will be released in December.

To come from curiosity and care, to understand, means to be able to listen. It feels good to be listened to! To be heard. This is absolutely universal. Listening is usually where the bottleneck happens in a conversation. It’s not in the fluency or skill of our speech. Listening well can take us really far in a conversation. If we really know how to listen, we can help clean up a mess or de-escalate a conversation.

Listening depends on:
* Silence. We need to have an inner quiet. We need to make space to receive something. Learning begins with the willingness to not know.
* Letting go. To create the space for listening means to let go — let go of our thoughts, our views, our emotions. We need to bookmark those things and put them aside temporarily in order to hear someone.
* Natural receptivity (not forced). This isn’t about leaning forward and communicating, “I’m really going to listen now, I’m going to bear down.” That almost feels invasive. There’s a softness in it. Just receive it.
* Genuine interest. I’m not always interested in hearing the details of my son’s video game, but when I remember that I am interested in him and this is important to him, then I can listen with genuine interest.

Message Sent = Message Received or the Importance of Offering Reflection
The point of this kind of listening is to build understanding. Was the message sent the one that was received? If it wasn’t, then it’s like a call getting dropped.

How do we know when we are listening that that connection is actually happening? We offer a reflection. It’s a re-statement of what’s been said or an inquiry of what’s been said, whose intent is to confirm understanding.
Such as: Let me see if I’m understanding… Here’s what I’m hearing… I think you’re saying…
Sometimes just eye contact and silence, nodding, nonverbal signals do this also.

Reflecting back completes the cycle of message sent = message received. And when that happens, we can feel it. It’s like, “Whew. You heard me.”

It ends up slowing the conversation down, which is not so important if you’re just shooting the breeze with a friend. But when it’s a difficult conversation, we tend to speed up when we are activated. And the faster things go, the less understanding there is. Slow the pace down to make sure we are hearing each other. Also, when we are activated, we often don’t hear what the other person is saying! That’s why it’s so important to check it out. “I think you’re saying this, but is that true? Help me understand…”

The aim of this is twofold:
* Did I hear you right?
* How can I give this person an experience of feeling heard and understood? People are more willing to listen and more open to problem-solving when they feel heard. We are more creative!

Three Ways to Listen & Reflect
* Silent, whole-hearted presence
* Summarizing, paraphrasing. Not going deep. Not trying to interpret or make sense. Feeding them back the storyline.
* Empathetic reflection. Reflecting back something that might not have been explicitly said but was underneath the words. Listening for the emotions, or listening for the need.

Common Roadblocks to Listening
*Judging, criticizing or blaming. “What’s wrong with you; get it together; well, you’re the one who always…”
* Lecturing or preaching, moralizing. “Let me tell you how to handle this.” “Here’s what you should do.”
* Interpreting, analyzing, diagnosing. “I think I know what’s going on here… I think this has to do with your relationship in your family because….”
* Sarcasm or humor, changing the topic
* Giving advice or solutions. If someone shares something, we want to fix it. Unless someone asks for it, don’t go here first. At some level, we are communicating: I don’t trust that you can handle this on your own, so let me help you.
* Probing, questioning. This might be confusing. Here’s a scenario: “I had this conversation with my stepdad and he said this thing and I felt so hurt.” And you say: “So, this is your stepdad, right? Now, when did he and your Mom get married? Where was this? When did it happen?” We are turning the conversation to what we want to know, rather than following it for the other person.
* Praising or agreeing. While this can feel good in the moment, it’s not empathy. “Your’e 100% right. They’re wrong. You’re so amazing.” This may feel good to get validation but it may not give us the sense of feeling understood just for what we are experiencing. We’re connecting on the level of their thought or interpretation rather than on the level of their felt experience.
* Reassuring, sympathizing. “It’ll be OK.” “You’ll get through this.” When we’re really in pain, sometimes that might not be helpful; it may feel like people are dismissing us. Or sympathy or pity which has a distance to it. “Oh, you poor thing.” That can feel like I’m separate from you. Rather than empathy, which feels connecting.