Wholeness Healing Today

The Art of Listening

Relationships take a bit of work and require each party to be able to listen to each other as well as share feelings honestly. Both listening and sharing require skill at knowing how to do this. This is especially true if this was something that did not naturally happen in your own family as you were growing up. And although many people struggle with how to express feelings, this article is going to focus on how to listen to another person and what this would look like if you are doing it appropriately.

Although appearing to be a passive act, really listening is not passive. You have to work at it. It requires that you are paying attention to what the other person is saying. As you listen, your focus needs to be on the words, listening to how the other person is feeling, even imagining, if you can, how you would be feeling so that you are really aware of the feelings. Being empathetic implies that you understand the feelings that are being shared. If you show empathy (which means you know how they must be feeling), it doesn’t mean that you are supporting the situation or that you agree. It just means that you heard that person and how he/she was feeling. Sometimes, all the other person needs from you is to know that you “actually heard him/her” and what he/she was trying to say. It is in being “listened to” that the feelings of support and caring can be felt.

One way to ensure you really “got” the message is to repeat it back to the person in your own words to see if you heard what he/she was really trying to say. Often though, what happens is that the words go through the colored lens to your brain and are misunderstood. That is why repeating it back in your own words can really help ensure that you have heard it right. And you both keep working at it until you, as the listener, are told by the person sharing that you heard him/her correctly. So you might paraphrase with, “Are you saying that you are really lonely?”

What do I mean when I say it might go through the colored lens? Because we each carry our own history, we can get sidetracked in our listening. One way this may come out is that a person might get defensive. This can happen for lots of different reasons. It could be that when you hear someone you care about talking about feelings that are angry or sad or something uncomfortable, you get uncomfortable. You might feel as if you want it to be better so you take it on as if “you” did something wrong or that person would not be unhappy. This is actually a very common experience. Often in family or marital therapy, the other person gets defensive and when we get through the layers of this, it is often because the defensive person feels responsible for the other person’s unhappiness. You are not responsible for someone else’s feelings. If someone is sharing with you, your responsibility in the relationship is to listen and hear the person and try to understand what they are saying. So you have to LISTEN!

Other situations that happen may not be defensiveness on your part in “listening”. But it still might be that you are trying to “fix the situation”. If you are trying to fix it, you might immediately give the person ideas about what he/she needs to do to fix his/her feelings and the situation. In fact, by trying to give advice, it often bypasses the feelings of support and caring because you are giving the person strategies to fix his/her feelings. Unsolicited advice is definitely not helpful. It gives that person the message that you know better what they need to do and often leads to missing the point of hearing the person and how he/she is feeling in the moment.

Unsolicited advice implies that you know better than the person sharing how he/she needs to run his/her life. Sharing with you did not mean that you should engage the car, tell the person to get in, and start to drive him/her down the life path of your choosing. If you are listening, you walk with the person on whatever path he/she is traveling, let him/her deal with the situation, listening and supporting, but not advising.

Another barrier to listening is to place blame on the person sharing the feelings. “Well, whose fault is it if you feel lonely all the time? You have choices.” If you jump into blaming the person, it may be that you are angry with him/her because that person is unhappy so you say things that are rude, sarcastic, or uncaring.

If you do this, you really need to look at what this is about. Are you angry because you feel responsible? If so you may be into some codependency tendencies and need to look at this. It certainly will not help your relationship and will push him/her away from you if he/she chooses to share his/her vulnerable feelings and you turn around and tell him/her that it is his/her fault.

Listening, really listening, means you listen to what is being said. You don’t think about what you want to say while they are talking. You stay present in the moment, listen in the moment, and really hear the person. It means being okay with the feelings, not trying to fix it, not blaming the person for the feelings, but accepting the person totally in what he/she is saying and how he/she is feeling in this moment. That is all you have to do.

If you struggle with listening and find it affecting your relationships, it is well worth considering therapy to work at seeing, understanding, and changing the patterns. We all carry our own colored lens as we all have our own history that makes up our patterns.

Listening seems like an easy task, but it really is an art. It can make or break the relationship. Many things can be overcome in relationships if you can listen to each other and really hear each other. If listening is a struggle, it would be well worth the effort to work towards improving. You do not want to ignore this issue as it will not go away.

Perfect your skill, improve your listening, and work through this if you struggle with the art of listening and life will be much more fulfilling in your relationships. In the next issue we will talk about how to express feelings in a relationship.

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  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.


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