1st July 2010

So you think you can listen


As a psychotherapist, coach and facilitator I have heard the words ‘Why don’t they listen to me?’ more times than I care to remember.  It seems whatever the context the desire to be listened to is a universal theme.  Research shows that when we are genuinely listened to we feel validated, understood and less likely to become aggressive, defensive or withdraw from the relationship.  If this is true then maybe the place to start is with the question:-

‘What does it mean to listen?’ 

I ask this question at every opportunity and I am always fascinated by the answers as they usually go something like this…

‘If someone were listening to me then they would be focusing on me and not interrupting.  They would be making eye contact, sitting close to me, not watching TV, playing with their mobile or reading the paper’; or

‘It would mean being interested in what the other person is saying – without rolling eyes, looking around the room, or calculating in my head how to contradict or defend what is being said. It means not having my own agenda.’

For me the answers reflect our struggle to articulate exactly what it means to listen and I have to say I was none the wiser until I trained as an Imago therapist.  It was only then that I truly grasped the concept and discovered the complexity and importance of listening.  I was shocked to discover that we spend as much as 95% of our time in ‘reactive listening’.  This is when we engage in old patterns of thinking and being which cause us to look at the conversation from a win/lose paradigm.  The problem with this is that it guarantees just one outcome – lose/lose.  So we are unable to hear what the other is really communicating and they don’t feel listened to - leaving both feeling disconnected, frustrated and misunderstood.

Real intentional listening is deeply challenging.  It requires us to engage the frontal lobe of the brain, believe we are in a win/win situation and find safety in being completely present, in that moment, for no other reason than we are genuinely curious about what the other has to say.

How do we listen?

The question is ‘How do we do that?’  Experience shows me that irrespective of the context there are essential elements to good listening.

  • Make time to listen.  Stop what you are doing and pay full attention to the person speaking.  If you cannot then let them know why, offer an alternative time and relay to them that you are genuinely interested in what they have to say.  Commit to turning up at the agreed time.
  • Get clear about what you are listening to.  Ask a direct question. It is vitally important you understand what the other person wants to talk about.  This clarifies the purpose of the conversation for both of you.
  • Make it safe to listen.  If you do not feel safe your old brain will go into survival mode causing you to become defended and reactive blocking your ability to listen.  (Read more about this in Part II of the series)
  • Prepare your environment. Turn off or move away from the TV, mobile, computer, colleagues, children etc.  You need as little distraction as possible to really be present and listen.
  • Notice your body language. People regularly tell me how important it is for the listener to be sitting close, face to face, in a relaxed position with inviting and open body language. This means no folded arms, rolling of eyes or huffing!
  • Know your triggers.  We all know the language and issues likely to send us into reactivity and defence so try not to get trapped by it.  (Read more about this in Part III of the series)
  • Believe it is a win/win situation. Let go of your desire to be right.  Step into the other person’s shoes for a short while.  Remember you don’t have to agree with what they are saying but you need to validate that their experience is real for them. 
  • Set an intention.  I believe we all want our conversations to have positive outcomes – even the difficult ones.  You need to consciously remind yourself of this.  So set an intention that reflects this.
  • Mirror what they say.  You can do this by repeating back exactly what you are hearing.  The more you mirror the more they will feel you are able to step away from you own judgements, filters and beliefs and understand their experience.  (Read more about this in my article on Imago)

It takes practice

Clients tell me that in the beginning intentional listening can feel a little overwhelming.  Thankfully experience shows the more we practice the more natural it becomes.  The up side is, in a relatively short period of time, conversations become less confrontational and both parties feel safer, more connected and understood ultimately leading to more positive outcomes.


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Posted by Kerry-Lyn on 01/07/10 at 11:29am
Theme: Communication
Theme: Neurobiology
Theme: Relationships

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