Today, I’m going to focus on the role of the hearer. The one that the speaker is trying to talk to. Sometimes the breakdown in our communication is not because of the wrong time and place, or because the speaker is not being intentional, but rather the breakdown is on the part of the one who is listening.
In my first post on communication, I introduced the topic of how important effective communication is in our homes. Many of the issues that families are having, stem from poor communication. If you missed part 1, Click here.
In my second post, I focused on the role of the speaker, and I wrote about how important it is to choose the proper time and place for our discussions and being intentional about it. If you missed part 2, Click here.
Now, we’ll focus today on the one who is listening to the speaker. The term, active listening is a very common one in the field of counseling, and differs from merely hearing. You could maybe say that hearing is what happens in your ears, but listening happens in your mind and heart. Active listening requires the hearer to fully concentrate, understand, respond and remember what is being said.
First I’ll give an example of what not to do as the hearer. I’ll use the illustration from the previous post of Betty and Fred. Remember that Betty had a really hard day and she told Fred that she needed to talk and asked him if he had a few minutes to listen. Fred says, sure, I’m listening. She starts talking, and he keeps his eyes on the computer. She finishes telling him how bad her day was, and he dryly says (still looking at the computer) “Well it sounds like you should probably do a better job of managing your time.”
Mistakes here: First, he said he had time to listen right now, but then didn’t stop with the computer work. If he didn’t have time right now, then he should ask if she can wait just a couple minutes until he’s done with his work. (remember the last post on appointments – if you missed it – please read it here). Second mistake -instead of acknowledging how she is feeling, he just offers a quick solution. This is probably going to make her think he doesn’t care about her and wasn’t even really listening. This scenario happens countless times among spouses and parents and children. Distracted hearing but not truly listening. And quick simplified responses rather than caring thoughtful ones.
“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” Proverbs 18:2
So what’s the right way to listen? Again, Betty comes over, says she needs to talk. Fred says, sure, now is fine. He shuts the computer, looks her in the eye, maybe even places a hand over hers to show he is interested, present, and listening. (physical touch is powerful in conveying love and attention) She pours out her frustrations, which maybe hard for Fred to follow at times because it’s coming out a little tangled and rambling, but he concentrates on her words, and uses his mind to process those words and try to interpret her feelings. He’s not thinking of a response right now. He’s listening closely to her words. When she’s done, he says something along the lines of, “What I hear you saying is that you’ve had a lot of difficult things going on today, and you feel overwhelmed.” He is basically summarizing what she said. This shows her that he was truly listening. Now sometimes, the hearer will give an incorrect summary, and then the speaker can say “no, that’s not what I mean.” and then restate. (Speaker, remember to give grace to your hearer – don’t get angry that they didn’t understand you clearly – just restate, help them understand you).
You can do this technique “What I hear you saying is…..” with anyone – children, coworkers, friends, etc., and it will help your speaker feel validated and cared for.
This works great with children and teens as well. Imagine that Molly, a 4 year old, stomps in crying and yelling “No one ever plays with me! They are all so mean!” The common response from mom may be a distracted or annoyed, “That’s not true. Your sister plays with you all the time.” Does Molly feel like her mom really listens or understands? Probably not. This may teach Molly that she shouldn’t bother going to her mother with her feelings. Now a better response from mom could be, “What I hear you saying is that your feelings are hurt. Can you tell me more about what happened?” Mom here used active listening, trying to truly hear and understand not only the words her daughter said, but also the underlying feeling behind them. She summarized by saying “What I hear you saying is….” and then invited Molly to share more.
Now, for the heated harder topics. This is a time when active listening is extremely important. Oftentimes in an argument, as soon as the speaker starts talking, the hearer is thinking of their own response and rebuttal. For an argument to be productive, both parties need to truly listen and ideally use the summary technique that I’ve already illustrated. (What I hear you saying is….) By summarizing, it ensures that the hearer truly did “hear” what the speaker was saying. This is so important. Oftentimes what is “said” and what is “heard” are two totally different things. Going back to Betty and Fred, imagine that after Betty shared about her hard day, Fred got defensive and said “What I hear you saying is that I don’t help out enough around the house!” His summary is incorrect – it is not what Betty was intending him to hear. Betty then can clear it up and say, “no, that’s not what I’m saying at all.” and then she can restate her feelings.
“If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” Proverbs 18:13
Most of our communication is on a much lighter level, like “what do you think about the weather this week?” or “I can’t believe that our team won the game last night”. Obviously the summary technique is not called for in these situations, but it is still important to offer eye contact when possible, and truly listen when someone is speaking. I know I tend to “half-listen” because frankly I’m busy and I too often try to multi-task, and there are times I realize that one of my children has been telling me about something and I’ve missed most of what they said. Honesty is the best policy here – say something like, “I’m sorry I wasn’t listening. Can you please repeat that?” My dear husband is so good at doing this! (Speaker, please again, give grace to your hearers if they admit they weren’t listening and ask you to repeat!)
Key words to remember: “What I hear you saying is…..” Just go ahead and say it over and over again until it’s stuck in your mind and ready to slip off your tongue during your next heart-felt discussion. It can change the whole outcome of your communication if put into practice.
Learning to listen is a key component to a healthy, happy family.
Be fruitful, friends.