Are you really listening when someone is telling you something?
If you really want to hear what someone is talking about, and what their experience is like, start by practising active listening.
Active listening is something that therapists endeavour to do in order to help clients feel truly heard and supported, and I wanted to share some ideas with you on how to up your active listening game. Spending nearly a decade working with refugees and torture survivors has certainly honed my active listnening skills. Here’s what I have learnt:
- Be genuinely curious. Don’t assume you know what someone will say as this will get in the way of you really connecting and listening. We are taught to express our opinions (no bad thing) but you cannot learn if you don’t listen. Something I like to share with my 8 year old frequently.
- Shut down your internal dialogue. Whilst someone is talking, your mind will kick in with ‘That was like when I…’ or ‘I know how that feels because…’. Ok, that’s fine and a normal part of understanding, but giving your thoughts too much attention and then articulating them detracts from truly listening to someone’s experience. You don’t necessarily have a comparable experience in your life.I don’t know what it’s like to lose all my family in a car bomb in Baghdad. It’s not about sharing your experience, but about listening.
- Reflect back. This feels strange but does help someone to feel heard. Summarise what you’ve heard but do it gently. You could say ‘So, what I heard you say was…’ or ‘From what I heard, it sounds like you are feeling…’
- Ask for clarity. I often ask my clients ‘Can I check I have understood that correctly?’ as I don’t want to assume I have it right when I don’t.
- Ask questions but don’t interrupt. I will often say ‘Can I ask a question?’ and the questions I will ask will be about feelings and thoughts, rather than just clarifying facts. It’s not just the facts of what has happened but how that person felt and thought about it.
You know when you have been on the receiving end of some good active listening. The experience of being heard is so very powerful and transformational. Of course some of these skills can seem unnatural, but it’s not about having a ‘normal’ conversation. It’s about truly listening and learning. Be patient, non-judgemental and practise some of the tips above and you are off to a good start.
What will you hear when you start listening?