“The degree to which I can create relationships, which facilitate the growth of others as separate persons, is a measure of the growth I have achieved in myself.” – Carl Rogers
We all want to be heard, but how well do we listen? Cultivating the art of listening can go a long way toward creating deeper, more fulfilling relationships. Here are some ways to ratchet up your listening — and thereby deepening connections in your important relationships.
If someone asked you if you care about your partner and friends, you would probably answer without hesitation, “Yes, of course.” But this raises the question, what does it really mean to care about someone?
It’s comforting to have the self-image of being a caring person — and maybe we are. But true caring is more than just an abstraction. It’s more than wishing a person well. It requires a mature capacity to move beyond ourselves and see the life of another apart from ours. They have their own set of feelings, hopes, and fears. Caring means we’re concerned about their growth and their relationship with their life, not just with ours. As Milton Mayeroff, professor of philosophy, wrote in his classic book, On Caring:
“To care for another person, I must be able to understand him and his world as if I were inside it… I must be able to be with him in his world, ‘going’ into his world in order to see from ‘inside’ what life is like for him.”
Caring goes hand in hand with being interested in a person. Rather than making an effort to be interesting, we keep our focus on being interested. Of course, reciprocity is important too, and it’s important to be heard. But generously extending genuine interest can get the ball rolling toward a fulfilling mutual exchange.
We can learn a lot by being interested in people. We each have a wealth of experience, especially as we get older. We can learn and be stimulated by each other’s experience. But it might not occur to someone to open up to you unless you convey that you’re interested. Showing interest by listening in an open, non-judging way can help a person feel safer with you, which thickens the delicate strands of trust between you.
Stay in Your Body
We can listen more deeply as we stay connected to our body. When people share feelings or experiences that are important to them, I try to remember to breath as a way to stay connected to myself. I try to listen not just with my mind but also with my heart. We don’t have to do this perfectly. I certainly don’t. We all get distracted sometimes. Similar to “good enough mothering,” “good enough” listening conveys the overriding sense that we care.
People can often sense when we extend heartfelt listening. Feeling accepted rather than judged, they then feel safer to be vulnerable with us and share what’s in their heart without being paralyzed by shame or fear.
Somatic approaches to therapy, such as Focusing, Somatic Experiencing, and Hakomi can help us learn to be more connected to the feelings that live in our body. Learning to be gentle and friendly toward our own feelings creates a platform for attending to others’ feelings in a sensitive, attuned way.
Monitor Your Defensiveness and Reactivity
It’s easy to get triggered when people are expressing their feelings. To the extent that we’re comfortable with our own emotions, we can listen without getting overwhelmed. People can usually sense when we’re uncomfortable with the feelings they’re sharing, especially if their feelings are a response to something we’ve done or said.
Monitoring our defensiveness means noticing when we’re shutting down or becoming reactive or defensive. Being mindful of these reactions can allow us to pause, take a breath, and notice that what’s happening inside us. We might realize, for example, that we feel angry if our partner is upset by our lack of affection or being late. We might feel some shame for having broken an agreement or not being so loving lately.
Shame is often a trigger for attacking or withdrawing. Instead of reacting in a defensive fight-flight mode, we can notice the shame that triggered us. We can take a step back and express the shame and take responsibility for our actions, perhaps saying something like “I can appreciate how you feel that way. You’re right, I’ve been distant lately. I appreciate your telling me. I feel badly that I haven’t been very present or responsive lately.”
Our non-defensive listening can help our partner feel respected, seen, and heard, which is a step toward repairing broken trust and rebuilding connection.
The art of listening involves engaging with a person in an authentic way. It means being interested in a person’s growth and wanting to support that growth. Just as plants needs ample water and sunshine to grow, people need the nutrient of our generous listening in order to grow and thrive.
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