We have a yearning to be understood; to be seen, known, and accepted in a shared relationship. How do we then respond to this yearning in others as well as in ourselves? For many of us, learning to listen well and practice effective listening is something we do because we recognize the value of being heard. In essence, we are giving out of our own need.
The Benefits of Being Listened To
In the presence of someone who practices effective listening, we are able to clarify what we think and discover what we feel. A burden is lifted as you are able to put into words what you are thinking and feeling, knowing someone is listening and acknowledging you. It’s like having an ache suddenly relieved or a refreshing breeze that clears the air. It is a comfort.
Listening Fortifies Our Sense of Self
Human beings, like any living thing, require nourishment to grow strong but also to maintain strength and vitality. Effective listening nourishes our sense of worth. The response that we receive from others also shapes our sense of self. When people respond to us in terms of their own preferences rather than tuning into ours, we feel unseen, unheard, and unknown by them, which leads us into isolation rather than connection.
When people talk about feelings —- what they’re excited about, what’s troubling them —- they want to be listened to and acknowledged, not interrupted with advice or told that someone else had a similar experience. They want listeners who will take the time to hear and acknowledge what they’re saying, not turn the focus to themselves.
Obstacles of Effective Listening
Listening can be disrupted by either the speaker or the listener. There are three primary obstacles that get in the way of effective listening:
- The listener’s own agenda
- Preconceived notions and expectations
- Defensive emotional reactions
1. The Listener’s Agenda
Most of us are in a hurry. We feel we don’t have time for effective listening. And when we feel this way, we may be too concerned with instructing, informing, or reforming another person to be truly open to his or her point of view. As long as we are unable to restrain the urge to set someone straight, we will have trouble hearing them. (Interestingly, most people aren’t eager to be changed by someone who doesn’t understand them.)
We are inundated with images and messages, all vying for our attention. As a result, our attention is fractionated. We’ve become experts at tuning out and channel surfing, and have become selective hearers.
2. Preconceived Notions and Expectations
Letting go of preconceived notions means putting our judgment on hold. To listen well, it’s necessary to let go of what’s on your mind long enough to hear what it is that someone else has to say. Assuming you know what someone is going to say means you don’t have to bother to listen. You might also assume that you know the right way to communicate. If so, you’ll probably have trouble relating to people whose conversational styles are different from yours.
“When we see sadness or depression in someone, we tend to assume that something’s wrong, that something’s happened. Maybe that something is that nobody’s listening.”
Some of the expectations we bring to conversations are built up from the layers of history of our past relationships. But some of what we expect to hear is part of the deep structure of our personalities.
To understand effective listening and the dynamics of relationship, it’s necessary to consider not only what goes on between people but also what goes on inside them.
3. Defensive Emotional Reactions
In order to become better listeners and promote healing and transformation in our relationships, we must become aware of the emotional triggers that generate anxiety, create misunderstanding, and stir up conflict. When our emotions are in control, we react without thinking. Our ability to understand and empathize is constricted. We often miss what is being said because something in the speaker’s message triggers hurt, anger, impatience, and defensiveness.
Mature listeners are able to control their emotions rather than be controlled by them. By accepting responsibility for their own responses, they hear what is said, feel their reactions, then decide how to respond.
When you demonstrate a willingness to listen with minimum defensiveness, criticism, or impatience, you are giving the gift of understanding —and earning the right to have it reciprocated.
Better listening doesn’t start with a set of techniques. It starts by making a sincere effort to pay attention to what the other person is experiencing in his or her private world.
To take an interest in someone else, we must be willing to step aside from self-focus in order to bring the other person into full view. This requires deliberate, intentional action — a shift from self to others. People live in their own personal and subjective worlds.
To be truly known means that we make ourselves vulnerable, hoping to be well received. When we feel the risk is too great, we hide away our real feelings, sometimes even from ourselves. As a result, our conversational encounters, like our relationships themselves, often consist of shadows dancing with each other.
If you want to know how someone else feels, ask, and then listen.
Implicit messages tell us more than what’s being said; they tell us how we’re meant to receive what’s being said. Many of the statements we make in conversation can potentially have multiple meanings.
We use posture, facial expression, and tone of voice to convey our messages, but misunderstandings about how messages should be received are a major reason for problems in listening. We know what we mean but we encounter problems when we expect others to.
One of the most effective ways to improve understanding is to listen for the implicit feelings in what people say. Much of misunderstanding could be cleared up if we appreciate the other person’s perspective and clarify what remains implicit.
When we learn to listen for what is NOT being said, we can hear the unspoken feelings beneath someone’s anger or impatience. We discover the power to release the bitterness that keeps people apart.
With a little effort, we can hear the hurt behind expressions of hostility, the resentment behind avoidance, and the vulnerability that makes people afraid to speak or truly listen. When we understand the healing power of effective listening, we can even begin to listen to things that make us uncomfortable.
Why do people complain to us? Behind every complaint is a request. Listen for the request and then ask if that is what the person would like. Fight the urge to interrupt someone who is criticizing you or complaining to you. This only robs the other person from being heard. The irony is, we tend to be about as accepting of others as we are of ourselves.
Learn to Listen to Yourself
If you never really learn to value and understand what’s going on inside of you, you will never learn to do the same for someone else. If you don’t understand yourself, how can you get to know another person —someone with a completely different experience and perspective —and value the truth of who they are? Jesus drives this truth home when He tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Learn to Listen to God’s Voice
The Bible has a beautiful story to tell us about effective listening and discerning God’s voice. This story reminds me of how difficult it is for us to hear what is being said in the midst of noise, heightened emotion, or in circumstances that threaten us. God speaks to us in the quiet, innermost depths of our hearts.
“A great and mighty wind was tearing at the mountains and was shattering cliffs before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire there was a voice, a soft whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave” (1 Kings 19:11-14).
The Importance of Christian Counseling for Effective Listening
As a counselor, becoming an effective listener is a lifelong pursuit. I am continually fascinated by the uniqueness of each individual story I hear. Yes, it’s true that in our humanness we share commonalities; nonetheless, the threads that run through our personal lives are so intricately woven that there are no duplications, no mass market design, or run-of-the-mill lives.
God has placed such high value on our lives that He sent His own Son to redeem us as living proof. And He promises to listen and answer when we call to Him.
“I love the LORD, for He heard my voice; He heard my cry for mercy. Because He turned His ear to me, I will call on Him as long as I live.” – Psalm 116:1-2
The counselors at Seattle Christian Counseling are available for you. Each one has undergone rigorous educational and spiritual training in their commitment to come alongside you in order that you will feel seen, heard, and understood, and experience all the joy and freedom that comes from experiencing new life.
Please call and schedule an appointment to meet with me or one of the other counselors listed in the directory. Your story is always welcome here, and we are listening.
“A Walk in the Mist”, Courtesy of Cocoparisienne, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Bonfire bonding”, Courtesy of Phil Coffman, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Alone”, Courtesy of Zulmaury Saavedra, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Watching the Sunset”, Courtesy of RoonZ-nl, Pixabay.com, CC0 License