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Working too hard at Listening?

When someone is sharing something with you, it is easy to get 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.

§       Your 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 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.

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