Learning to Listen

Have you ever wanted to share something that has been bothering you with someone you love? They have hurt your feelings in some way and you want to let them know, but you are scared to share out of fear they may react? You go through the process of psyching yourself up for the conversation, mustering up enough courage to share with them, asking them to set aside time to talk, and then your fear comes true. You begin to share with them your thoughts and feelings and they slowly seem unengaged in the conversation. They may look at their phone, become easily distracted, or even become defensive, thus leaving you feeling empty and sad and not wanting to share any further. Yearning to connect with them has now become a faint memory as you just want to end the conversation.

Learning to understand someone requires the capacity to truly listen to what they are saying. There are ways to hear one another’s issues without feeling attacked by someone who is courageously sharing with you. Stephen Covey once said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Harville Hendrix (img credit: betterlisten.com)

In counseling we use a phrase called ‘active listening.’ So what does it mean to actively listen? Active listening is a communication technique that requires that the listener fully concentrate, understand, respond and then remember what is being said. It’s a technique that Harville Hendrix, PhD has made into an artform. He developed what has become a handy 4 step guide to better communication. It is often used with couples, families, friends, and even co-workers to help clean up communication.

We all know what it feels like when we feel heard. We feel more connected to the person we are conversing with. By paying attention and giving the person speaking your undivided attention, you acknowledge the person and the message they are sharing. You show that you are listening by using your own body language to convey that you are open to hearing what they are saying (i.e. such as arms unfolded). You provide supportive feedback, all the while deferring judgment.

So how does this look? Harville Hendrix has laid out a four step process to better communication. In this detailed script (which you can modify to suit your needs), Dr. Hendrix includes a step-by-step guide to follow when you truly want to communicate with someone. He uses the word “partner” throughout which can be interchanged with friend, co-worker, spouse, etc. It is encouraged to have a copy of this 4 step guide with you as you navigate through the first few conversations. As you practice this kind of active listening you and your partner will get more comfortable with the process and it does not take a lot of time.

Step 1: Mirroring

How to listen to your partner/friend/co-worker without distorting his thoughts and feelings.

Dr. Hendrix says the first step of an intentional dialogue is to mirror your partner and let him be heard without judgment. Follow this basic script with your partner.

Mirroring Exercise

  • Tell your partner the message you would like him to hear. The message should start with “I” and describe your feelings. (Example: “I feel hurt when you talk down to me.”)
  • Your partner then mirrors your message. Example: “If I got it, you feel hurt when I talk down to you. Did I get it?”
  • If you feel your partner didn’t understand your message, explain again and have him mirror you until the message is received.
  • Complete the message. If you were heard accurately, your partner says, “Is there more about that?” This helps you complete your feelings and prevents your partner from responding to incomplete messages.
  • When the message is completed, your partner then summarizes all of the message. (Example: “Let me see if I got that…”)
    He should check for accuracy with, “Did I get it all?”

Step 2: Validating

Why it’s not enough just to listen to your partner.

It’s not enough just to listen, you must learn to pay close attention in order to understand your partner’s truth. “It’s not enough just to be heard,” says Dr. Harville Hendrix, “It’s ‘Do you see that I’m not crazy?'”

Validating Exercise

  • Your partner does not have to agree with your argument to validate it.
  • In order to validate your message, he needs to use the right language. He should use sentences like this: “You make sense because…” or “I can see what you’re saying….” Using the phrase, “makes sense” may be helpful—it tells you that your partner doesn’t think your feelings are crazy.
  • Your partner must make certain that you feel validated before moving on. If you do, move on to the next step.

Step 3: Empathizing

Once the feeling is expressed, it’s time to put yourself in your partner’s shoes.

The next big step in the dialoguing process is for your partner to empathize with your expressed feelings. “Figure out the feeling, and go to that place with him or her,” Dr. Hendrix says. “Step into that place with them and they will know you exist for them in that moment. That’s a connection.”

Empathy Exercise

  • Your partner can start the empathy exercise with a statement such as, “I can imagine that you might be feeling…” or “I can see you are feeling….”
  • Since it’s impossible to know exactly what a person feels, your partner should check for accuracy. He should ask “Is that what you’re feeling?” If he didn’t understand the feeling, you should readdress the message.
  • If you share new feelings with you partner upon reiteration, he must mirror those feelings. (For example, “Is there more about that feeling?”)

Once your partner has gone through these steps, an extra “gift” helps solidify the discussion.

Step 4: Giving the Gift

It’s time to ask your partner for a small, positive request.

What is it that you want that you’re not getting? Dr. Harville Hendrix suggests that the best way to transform something painful is by giving your partner a behavior change request in the form of a “gift.” He says, “Instead of beating your partner up about it, translate the frustration into your wish.”

The Gift Exercise

  • Start by asking something as simple as, “Right now, can I make a request?” (Example: “Can you come and hug me? Can you say a kind word to me?”)
  • Your partner should comply.
  • Keep working at giving each other “gifts” until a shift occurs and you can see your partner without judgment. “Once couples can rely on these gifts, the safety arena will go up and the defensive barriers go down,” Dr. Hendrix says.When you are finished with your intentional dialogue, reverse roles. You are now the receiver of your partner’s feelings and should start with the mirroring exercise. With practice, you and your partner can continue to create the marriage, friendship, or relationship, of your dreams.

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