How often do we actually listen to other people when they’re talking? I mean listening without focusing on how we’re going to respond, without interrupting, without debating what they’re saying, without getting defensive. Probably less often than we like to think, even though listening is incredibly important. It’s important for building beautiful relationships and for navigating every area of our lives.
We need to listen carefully at work to our bosses and colleagues. We need to listen carefully to our clients. We need to listen carefully to our partners and our kids and to all of our loved ones. This is how we gain a deeper understanding of the people we’re interacting with. This is how we avoid misinterpretations and miscommunication. It’s how we resolve conflict. And it’s how we genuinely connect and strengthen our bonds.
In his insightful book Clearing Emotional Clutter: Mindfulness Practices for Letting Go of What’s Blocking Your Fulfillment and Transformation, Donald Altman shares a valuable technique for hearing others. But first Altman, MA, LPC, a psychotherapist and former Buddhist monk, shares a powerful example of how really listening, even to people who trigger our defenses, can make a big difference in our relationships.
Altman was working with a 35-year-old woman named Beth. She felt like her mother was frequently criticizing her. If she was giving her kids space, her mom would say she’s being neglectful. If she was helping them with their homework, her mother would say she’s being a helicopter parent. Altman gave Beth the following suggestions to try the next time she spoke to her mom: To let go of her old perspectives just for the duration of their conversation; to go beyond the content of her mom’s communication and instead focus on her tone, gestures, facial expressions and body language (i.e., what’s swimming underneath); to imagine she’s talking to an interesting stranger; and to judge the accuracy of her own thoughts to create some distance from them.
When Beth really listened to her mom, she was surprised by what she learned: Her mom is lonely. She told Altman, “I think she’s trying to connect with me, but she doesn’t know how. It made me sad to see how lonely she is. For the first time in a long time, I felt compassion for her.”
Altman suggests we try to HEAR others to help us remain open, compassionate, and less defensive during conversations. Below are his excellent tips:
H: Hold All Assumptions
Let go of your previously held assumptions. Adopt an attitude of curiosity toward the other person. “How did he or she develop these ideas? What concerns does the person have? Is he or she speaking from a place of fear or worry?”
E: Enter the Emotional World
Try to put yourself inside the other person’s emotional world, inside the person’s shoes. For instance, according to Altman, you might say: “I’ve never seen you this angry [or sad, upset, frustrated, and so on]. Can you help me understand? I’d really like to know how you feel so we can work on solving the problem.”
Also, pay attention to what isn’t being said, such as the person’s tone of voice and body language.
A: Absorb and Accept
“Absorption is a process of listening, understanding, questioning, and then rephrasing in your own words to make certain you understand,” Altman writes. The other part is acceptance. This doesn’t mean that we agree with what the other person is saying. Rather, it means that we are open to how the individual feels.
R: Reflect, Then Respect
This last step includes looking inward to think about what you’ve heard. Sometimes, you might need to pause before responding. This is especially true if you find yourself getting angry. That’s when it’s important to take a break to cool off. Even if your emotions aren’t heightened, you still might need time to yourself, such as taking a long walk. Then, when you are ready to respond, be respectful and kind.
Genuinely hearing someone is not an easy act. It requires our full attention and presence. It requires that we focus on the other person instead of on ourselves and what we want to say. But it is an important part of communicating with others, of building healthy, fulfilling relationships. And it’s a meaningful gift we can give to others. Truly.
Woman listening photo available from Shutterstock