The Basics of Listeningby Cat Saunders
It would be great if everyone learned the art of listening from healthy role models at home, starting at birth. It would also be wonderful if basic listening skills were included as part of the core curriculum in primary and secondary schools. My sense is that many of the world's ills arise from our inability to truly hear, understand, and respect other people's points of view. The truth is, it's not necessary to agree in order to validate each other.
Consider your own relationships. Do you feel heard by your family and friends, and do you honestly hear them? Can you respect other people's thoughts and feelings when they differ from yours? Do you know how to fully receive other people's communications as gifts, or do you wait with baited breath for your chance to speak?
The exercises in this article offer a few structured techniques for practicing good listening skills. Like all structured forms, they may feel rather stiff and awkward at first. For people who resist structure, or who have not practiced formal listening skills, these exercises may trigger resistance -- or even downright rebellion. If this is true for you, congratulate yourself for your spirited independence, and then try the exercises anyway. Perhaps you could tell your rebellious part that these techniques are actually a rebellion against old ways. That might help you relax.
The first time I tried techniques similar to those included here, all kinds of feelings came up for me. The exercises felt phony, at best, and terrifying, at worst. Over the years, however, these skills became an integral part of my communications. At this point, what used to feel formal simply feels respectful.
The exercises presented in this article are designed not only to stimulate deeper levels of intimacy between people; they are also intended to stimulate personal healing as well. Even the simplest of these processes can trigger feelings, not only because of the subject matter, but because you'll be communicating in new ways. If feelings come up for you, simply complete the exercise as best you can, and then take some time to be with your emotions.
To practice the exercises, you'll need a partner. You can either sit facing each other, or you can do the processes while you take a walk. Face-to-face interaction usually intensifies the intimacy, which can be more challenging -- and yet may bring bigger rewards. Walking has the advantage of movement, and it typically involves less eye contact. As a result, walking may ease intimacy fears for some people. I recommend that you experiment with both sitting and walking, and notice how your experience is different for each one. Do whichever feels safer first, and then "up the ante" when you're ready to explore more of your intimacy fears.
The next step is to decide who will be the first speaker, and who will be the first listener. Then choose a subject from the list at the end of this article, or from your own experience. For the purpose of illustrating some basic listening skills now, I Suggest that you begin by sharing things about the subject you know the most about -- yourself. To do this, say the following sentence to your partner, filling in the blank with anything that comes to mind:
Something I'd like you to know about me is _________________.
Each time you say something about yourself, your partner can respond with a simple, "Thanks!" or "Thanks for telling me." After you've had a few minutes in the speaker position, change roles and let your friend talk while you listen. The important thing to remember, as the speaker, is not to ramble on and weave tall tales. Keep it short and simple, even if it seems silly. The important thing to remember, as the listener, is that you respond only with a brief acknowledgment of thanks.
In regard to the listener saying, "thanks for telling me," it's not my intention to block longer conversations just for the sake of blocking longer conversations. Rather, the idea is to encourage the art of good listening by reducing the response to a bare-bones minimum, so the focus of attention remains solely on the speaker. This is an integral part of good listening. It's also the part which people resist the most.
It takes practice to receive other people's words without interrupting, finishing their sentences, commenting, or waiting impatiently for them to be quiet so you can talk. For example, one of the obstacles to good listening occurs when another person's words remind you of something in your own experience. At that point, you may suddenly lose interest in the other person, get lost in your own thoughts, and worst of all, start talking about yourself before you acknowledge the other person's ideas. I call this "swiping the focus," and it's one of my biggest pet peeves. I hate it when I catch myself doing it, and I hate it when others do it to me.
If you have trouble listening without adding commentary to other people's words, try this: pretend you're a tape recorder. This might sound ridiculous, but have you ever tried it? A tape recorder is the ultimate good listener because it never interrupts, it never offers unsolicited opinions, and it never misses a word of what was said. Can you listen so attentively that you could repeat back what the other person said? The fact is that good conversationalists are actually those who are the best listeners. I'm not suggesting that you never speak, only that you give as much consideration to how you listen as to what you say.
When you say "thanks for telling me" after people say something, it communicates to them that you have truly listened, and that you value their thoughts. What a concept! Believe it or not, you can use this technique in real life. If people ask you why you say thanks, tell them you're learning to treat other people's words as gifts, and that you honestly appreciate what they have to say. Most people will be honored by your efforts to give them your full attention.
Another reason I suggest that the listener use the "thanks" response is that it allows the listener to acknowledge the speaker without commenting on what the speaker says. As the listener, comments in the form of praise or criticism are actually statements about you, not the speaker. This is because praise basically conveys the message, "I like that," and criticism conveys the message, "I don't like that." Notice that this shifts the focus from what is being said to your opinion about what is being said.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with commenting about other people's thoughts, the point here is to minimize dialogue for the purpose of clarifying the roles of listener and speaker. In everyday conversations, people often become overly focused on speaking, even when they're supposed to be listening. As a result, no one ever really gets heard. In business terms, the "transaction" of a communication never gets completed. Therefore, the basic listening techniques provided here have a twofold purpose: 1) to help you learn to give nonjudgmental, undivided attention (as the listener); and 2) to help you learn to receive nonjudgmental, undivided attention (as the speaker). Both take practice for most of us.
Your job as a good listener is to keep the focus entirely on the speaker. Obviously, you may have feelings about what's being said, and you might think of something that you want to say. However, it's best to wait until other people are finished -- and feel acknowledged -- before you offer anything. In other words, listen until they have fully completed whatever they want to express, and then acknowledge their sharing in some way. During practice exercises, your acknowledgment can be a simple "thanks," as mentioned earlier. In everyday life, you might want to use a broader range of nonjudgmental acknowledgments such as, "I understand," "I hear you," "That's interesting," or a thoughtful "hmmm," with a nod.
Once you have mastered the art of simple acknowledgment, you might also want to practice the skill of paraphrasing other people's words as another way to let them know you have heard them correctly. As with all good listening, your paraphrasing should feed back what you've heard in a way that keeps the focus on the speaker, not on you. After the other person indicates that you've gotten it right, you might even ask if there is any more she or he wants to say. This kind of graciousness may seem formal, but it's not about manners; it's about respect. If you believe this kind of undivided attention sounds excessive, just remember how good it feels when someone gives it to you.
Another pointer for good communication is to ask others whether they want to hear what you have to say before you start talking. For example, you could say, "Can I tell you something?" or "Want to hear a story?" The point is that listening is a gift. No one is required to listen to you! Besides, as my dear friend, Cindy Seymour often reminds me, there's no point in throwing your pearls before swine. In other words, if you speak to someone who doesn't really want to listen to you, you're disrespecting yourself.
When you ask other people if they want to listen to you, it may seem contrived at first. However, the more I use this technique in everyday interactions, the more I realize that permission is the cornerstone of respect -- both for myself and for the other person. You can develop your own style of wording to ask permission, just as you can develop your own style to express acknowledgment. In this way, basic communication skills will become second nature for you.
If you feel initially uncomfortable with some of the ideas and methods outlined here, don't worry. Discomfort simply means you have room to grow -- if you choose to accept this mission! If possible, suspend judgment for the purpose of learning something new, and give the exercises a chance to work for you. By reducing communication skills to bottom-line basics, you can more easily detach from old, ineffective habits. Be patient, though.
Anyone who knows about the psychology of change will tell you that it takes at least a few weeks -- and often many months -- for new habits to take hold.
To close, I'd like to give you some topic ideas for practicing the listening skills offered in this article. You can experiment with the following examples when you meet someone new, or you can use them to deepen intimacy with old friends. To review, then, one person can choose a particular sentence and work with it for a few minutes, repeating it a number of times, and filling in the blank with something different each time. Remember that the listener simply says, "Thanks for telling me" after each statement by the speaker. Also, be sure to switch roles so each person has a chance to practice both positions.
Here are some possible options:
Something I like about you is ______________________.
Something I like about myself is ______________________.
Something I'd love to do with you is ______________________.
Something I like to do alone is ______________________.
One of my favorite memories is ______________________.
One of my most embarrassing moments was ______________________.
Something I'm scared to tell you is ______________________.
One of my dreams in life is ______________________.
One of my favorite sexual experiences was ______________________.
One of my most disastrous sexual experiences was ______________________.
One of the best things that ever happened to me was ______________________.
One of the worst things that ever happened to me was ______________________.
One of my favorite childhood experiences was ______________________.
One of the meanest things I ever did was ______________________.
One of the kindest things I ever did was ______________________.
My family always taught me ______________________.
One thing I love about my family is ______________________.
One thing I hate about my family is ______________________.
Something I was never allowed to do as a kid was ______________________.
Something outrageous I'd like to do is ______________________.
My favorite thing about being alive is ______________________.
The hardest thing about being alive is ______________________.
Something I think about death is ______________________.
One of my secret fantasies is ______________________.
One of the funniest things I ever heard was ______________________.
As you can see, some of these topics are relatively innocuous, while others are designed to stimulate feelings. Even if you don't have a big charge about something when you think about it by yourself, you may experience a lot of emotions when you express it to someone else. A really good listener can help you push old, dusty skeletons out of the closet simply by witnessing your words with nonjudgmental attention. In addition, a good listener can magnify pleasure, spread the contagion of laughter, and deepen the bonds of compassionate friendship
When you play with these exercises, speak your truth honestly and listen to your partner's truth with active curiosity. Take each other seriously, and yet keep a sense of humor. A healthy balance of focused intent and lighthearted receptivity can temper the fear of going deeper into the mysterious land of intimacy.
Special thanks to three former mentors who planted some important seeds of advice about good listening: Fredric Lehrman, Sondra Ray, and my father, Warren Saunders (belated Happy Father's Day!).
This article was adapted from Dr. Cat's Helping Handbook (to be published fall, 1997). If you'd like to help manifest the first edition by acting as investor, benefactor, or angel, please contact Cat in care of The New Times at NEWTIMES@SPEAKEASY.ORG or (206)320-7788 or fax (206)320-7717.