Often during conversations we feel we are not fully understood by the listener. Over time, this lack of being heard can lead to feelings of disconnect, ‘Why bother say anything in the first place?’ frustration, self-doubt, and arguments.
It takes both a good speaker and a good listener to make meaningful connections.
We can start with some very practical ideas:
Face to face contact: be in the same room, look at the other’s eyes when talking.
Minimize (eliminate!) distractions: turn off screens and other media and make the effort to stop doing another activity. If communications are already solid, you may ask the other person if it is OK to have your lunch while talking. However, wiping the windows might indicate lack of interest in the person. Each situation is different. Serious (solving a problem) conversations need full attention.
Get the timing right. Perhaps right after arriving home after work or an outing is not the best time. Establish a time best for discussions or ask, “Is this a good time to talk about …?”
Feelings first! Most people merely want to feel understood – and this includes both the content and feelings being conveyed. Thus, a good listener is one whom reflects back both the topic (e.g., messy kitchen) and the feelings (e.g., frustration). However, the listener must reframe from fixing, suggesting, or problem solving at this initial stage. In most cases, the speaker merely wants to vent some feelings and feel heard, and may not even be asking for help.
Even if the listener does not remember all that is said, they can state back the feeling in a non-accusatory manner. [This is called empathy.]“You sound frustrated” or “Are you frustrated?” The speaker feels that some sort of feeling-based effort to connect, even when the feeling is not correct, is being made [empathetic listening]. The speaker can either agree, “Yes, I’m frustrated,” or tweak the feeling, “Well, I’m more disappointed.”
Often when the feelings have been heard (along with some deep breathing!), the emotional energy drops (especially with more intense situations). Now we can move to the issue at hand. What is the frustration about?
Keep it simple. Short sentences are best. This prevents the listener from being overwhelmed with information and prevents the talker from ‘explaining.’
No explaining and no defending. When people start to explain or defend their actions, it takes away from the problem solving and connecting nature of conversations. Also, the elements of blaming, rationalizing, minimizing, or justifying enter the conversation, which are Ego defense mechanisms. These cause a wedge in the conversation – dividing the parties into sides instead of common ground.
‘We’ or ‘us’ first. Who cares if someone is right or not about a situation? Let that go and focus on the problem/issue. Put the issue (e.g., tidy kitchen or budget) on a sticky note to help keep the conversation focused.
Here’s a comic example of empathetic/reflective listening from the TV series Modern Family.