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Working too hard at Listening?

When someone is sharing something with you, it is easy to caught in ideas of how you are supposed to listen and respond.  For example, if your partner is sharing about a problem at work, you might think to yourself, "Oh, I need to figure this out so I can solve the problem."  Or "I have to cheer her up."  Or "I am tired of hearing about this so I have to convince him that it's not that big of a problem."  Even writing out these thoughts I feel tired. 

My hope for you is that listening doesn't have to be such hard work.  The first thing that might bring you some relief is to remember that most of the time when someone is sharing something with you all he or she wants is to be heard. 

I do a little exercise in the workshops I offer in which one person speaks for three minutes, while the other person listens silently.  At the end of the three minutes the listener uses a list of feelings and needs to make guesses about or say back the feelings and needs the speaker expressed.  Again and again the responses of the speaker in this exercise are the same:

"I was surprised how good it felt to be heard."

"I was so relieved to speak knowing I wouldn't get advice."

"Just having the space of three minutes without interruption, I got insight into my situation."

"After being heard, I could let go of the situation."

The listeners in this exercise typically express the following:

"I noticed how often I wanted to give advice."

"I kept feeling responsible, like I had to meet his needs."

"I didn't want to see her in pain.  It was hard not to jump and say everything would be okay."

These are the habits of listening a lot of us grew up with.  They are not so easy to change.  On the other hand, you feel exhausted carrying the burden of all the ways you think you need to respond when someone shares something with you.  To make matters worse, you are not necessarily helping by carrying that burden.  Remembering that most folks just want their feelings and needs heard first can allow you to put down some of that burden.

The second thing that can help you lighten your load is to ask the other person what kind of listening they want.  Good cues that it would be helpful to ask this question are:

§       You start to feel restless or resentful as you're listening.

§       You head starts aching with all the analysis and problem solving you're doing.

§       You start to offer information and the other person looks dejected.

§       You reach out to console with a hug and the other person pulls away.

§       You feel tired and disconnected as the other is talking.

Here are some ways you could ask the other person what kind of listening she or he is asking for:

"Just to be clear, are you needing to be heard or are you wanting advice?"

"I want to hear you and I am starting to go fuzzy.  Can you tell me what you are wanting in telling me this?"

"Would it help to have me say back what I am understanding you to say so far?"

"I notice I want to problem solve.  Is that what you are looking for?"

This week pick one person to practice listening to in this new way.  At least once this week ask that person what kind of listening he or she wants.  Remind yourself as you listen for and reflect back feelings and needs that you are not responsible for meeting them.  See if you can hold the other person as capable of meeting their own needs or explicitly making a request when they have one.  Let yourself enjoy listening to another's heart without the burden of all your ideas and habits around it.

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4 Responses

  1. Nov 19, 2009

    Thanks for creating clarity around listening. I've been noticing this come up for me a lot lately and some of your questions about what kind of listening feel really comfortable and easy to express in the moment.

  2. Nov 19, 2009

    i noticed another should that gets in the way of listening, which often gets triggered for me when hearing another member of the nvc community talking about what's going on for them - my 'i should be giving empathy' jackal. oh the irony!

    i've noticed how i tense up and start feeling resentful of the speaker when this should comes up - and fortunately i've been able to reflect and recognise what's going on, and give myself empathy for the unmet needs behind the resentfulness -
    "so you really want choice, huh? you really want to choose when and how you give empathy?"
    and then there's this fab bit where i get in touch with the wonderfulness of the choice-need energy inside me, and it's all *happy sigh*.

    after this i can get to the other needs that are in the mixing bowl of this particular recipe - really wanting to contribute to the wellbeing of others. and once i've got all my needs on the table, i trust that it's going to turn out as a pretty good brownie. (or in other non-culinary words, the chances of finding a way to meet all my needs are suddenly dramatically & magically increased a thousand-fold.)

    thought that might be worth sharing in case any other nvc-ers have developed the 'now that i know about empathy, i should always be giving it' should.

  3. Nov 25, 2009

    Yea, this is an important insight. All too easy to get caught up in "compassion shoulds"

  4. Nov 27, 2009

    Particularly with my kids,since I discovered NVC as young mother (well I wasn't young , but my motherhood was!) somehow I got it in my head that i "should" always be empathic with my kids till they started getting fed up with it!Thank God for these teachers...

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