By Lynn Acquafondata
“Did you hear me?!!” “You aren’t looking at me.” “I don’t know how many times I’ve said this, can’t you just listen to me?!!”
Listening is central to communication, but it is often challenging.
Even though we do it (or avoid it) every day, listening is complex. Many factors go into good listening. Some aspects are obvious, others quite subtle.
As therapists, we’re paid in part to listen effectively. We have studied and analyzed every aspect of good listening and all the factors that make it challenging. We work every day at listening better ourselves, so that we can be present to the people who come to us for help, and so that we can teach these skills to help people improve their own lives.
The best listening comes through face to face communication which is why therapy is mostly done in person. On the phone, you can hear a person’s tone of voice, but you miss all the other non-verbal signals. By text you can avoid preparing a response as the other person speaks, but texting eliminates all forms of non-verbal communication.
A good listener hears all the words that are spoken, but also watches and interprets body language including tone of voice, body movement and facial expression.
Neither words nor body language can be taken as statements of clear fact. Both, but especially non-verbal communication varies from person to person depending on upbringing, culture, and motives.
Even between people who have known each other a long time and are emotionally close, words and body language can be misinterpreted, which is where active observation comes in. This involves checking out your interpretation of verbal and non-verbal cues by stating what you are seeing and hearing and asking if that’s what the person means.
“You are saying, ‘Everything is fine,’ but you are tensing up and looking away, does this mean that you are not comfortable sharing something that is bothering you.?” Sometimes you can use active observation of words with a non-verbal response such as giving a confused look or showing the emotion you feel. If you look confused, the other person will likely explain more. If you show disappointment for the person, but they are actually relieved, the person is likely to name that in response to your non-verbal cue.
Listening can be scary. You can’t listen deeply without risking being changed. For example, if my partner is telling me he doesn’t like something I’ve done and I let myself really hear those words, I might realize I need to admit fault and change my actions or attitude. I might understand something about him that troubles me and realize I need to make a decision about my participation in this issue or in the relationship as it stands.
Even less intense or less personal exchanges can lead to change if one truly listens. Every counseling client changes us as therapists in some way. We sometimes understand life in a new way or we revisit our own losses and longings for a moment and chose to continue work on our personal issues after a session. We are often inspired in ways that lead us to adjust our own attitude or actions in life.
Good listening includes noticing your own emotions. Sometimes that includes noticing your internal responses and recognizing why you might be responding that way. Sometimes it involves sitting with your own discomfort as the other person speaks.
Listening deeply is not a superficial undertaking, it often leads to wrestling with the question of “Where is God in all of this?” or to pondering the ultimate questions of the meaning and value of life.
This can be an intense place to dwell, whether your responses are deeply troubling, confusing or awestruck. Sometimes it feels easier to turn on the television or half tune out the other person or even to tune out one’s self, rather than to face the mystery of life in all its struggle and beauty.
However, it is through listening deeply that we live life more fully and with richer meaning.