Most Of Us Hear, Not All Of Us Listen
I use a lot of skills in my work as a psychotherapist in Oakville. Some of these skills are ones that I teach my clients, too, and active listening is probably one of the most common – and most important – skills that I use and teach. Whether you’re looking for help with parenting or with couple counselling, this skill comes up over and over again since active listening is crucial for improving any relationship.
Generally communication requires a “sender” and a “receiver”, so the receiver uses active listening skills. What exactly is active listening? It generally boils down to three main parts.
First of all, we start by reflecting back what we have heard to the sender. Paraphrasing is ok, and certainly that’s better than sounding like we’re simply parroting what we’ve just heard! But be careful that you don’t sneak in a reflection of your own feelings. This part is challenging, because if we need active listening skills, then almost by definition the conversation is a difficult or emotionally-loaded one. If the sender says, “I just don’t feel that you really trust me,” it would not be active listening for the receiver to reply, “So what you’re saying is that you feel guilty and you believe I don’t trust you,” or “So what you’re saying is that your paranoia keeps you from feeling as though I trust you.” In both of those cases, the sender didn’t say anything like that. What was reflected back was a statement that actually reflected the receiver’s interpretation of the message or a judgment about the sender’s statement. A more accurate example of active listening might be, “So what you’re saying is that sometimes you’re not sure if I trust you.” That’s all. Keep it simple.
Next, we need to clarify if we have any questions. Don’t plow forward if there’s something you’re not following; that just increases the likelihood that you’ll stray further and further apart in your understanding of each other’s position. It’s ok to pause the conversation and say, “Wait, I have a question,” or “Just a minute, I’m not sure I’m clear on that part.” Make no assumptions. Stay on a particular point until you really feel that you’ve got it, and the sender feels confident that you do too. Sometimes we struggle to articulate what’s going on with us; this might be happening with the sender in this moment, so give him or her the courtesy and space to figure it out with you.
And finally, the whole purpose of active listening is to make sure that both the sender and the receiver are on the same page. Keep in mind that understanding and agreeing are not the same things. You can understand someone’s point of view without necessarily agreeing with it. Active listening isn’t about agreeing with everything the sender says, it’s about making sure that you understand all of it. Active listening alone might not be enough to resolve big problems, but without it, it’s almost impossible to resolve any.
So remember these key points to active listening, whether you’re talking to your kids and you want to improve your parenting skills, or talking to your partner about couple relationship issues, or even talking to your colleagues at work:
- focus on understanding the sender’s message. Keep your thoughts and responses to yourself; you’ll have the chance to talk later, and if the sender feels really heard and understood, there’s a much greater chance that s/he will be more interested in hearing and understanding you when your turn comes.
- ask questions. Don’t make assumptions, and clarify anything that seems a little murky to you.
- go forward with the goal of confirming that you both understand the sender’s message. Stay with a particular idea until you get confirmation from the sender that you really get it.
Active listening may not be the most natural skill, that’s true. But in my counselling work I’ve found that many people never really learned solid communication skills, and that catches up with them in their relationships. Whether your want to improve your marriage or improve your parenting, practice active listening. Let me know how it goes!