In a nation divided, hurting, and fearful, the pressure is mounting. When tension and conflict escalate, do you know how to help?

In various types of equipment, a pressure relief valve is used to release the pressure that builds up over time. If the pressure is not reduced, it can lead to fires, explosions, or other forms of complete breakdown. The same is true for humans. When tension, conflict, or pressure builds too much, it may come out in anger and violence towards others, but also in self-harm

Nancy Berns
Source: Nancy Berns

We need a pressure relief valve.

We need to learn how to act as a pressure relief valve for others, including family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and strangers. We need to learn how to reduce our own pressure, but also how to help others release the anger and fear in safer ways.

One of the most effective ways you can help others relieve pressure is to listen.  Sounds simple? It actually can be quite difficult to listen effectively.  

Here are ten tips for learning how to be a better listener.   

1. Why you listen is as important as how you listen. 

Prepare your motivation for listening: WHY are you listening? If you are listening only to find a way to punch holes in their argument or just waiting for your turn to speak, then you are not effectively listening. You are only waiting to talk. Make the goal of understanding another person your motivation for why you listen. Be a witness to their pain and frustration, which will help relieve pressure.    

2. Don’t try to "fix" their pain. 

When listening, your job is not to fix their pain. Too often, efforts to fix pain only make people feel like their pain is dismissed. You are to be an audience and a sounding board. This takes the burden of “finding the right words” off of you. Take a deep breath and know that your responsibility is trying to give them attention, compassion, and empathy.  Let the person unload emotions and words even if they make no sense to you at the time. When listening you are seeking to understand, not seeking to make the person understand you or to change.  

3. Understand that listening is not the same as agreeing.

We need people who disagree to start listening to each other. The purpose does not need to focus on coming to a consensus. We first have to know what another person feels and thinks. Listen and help relieve the pressure. Listen and help yourself understand others better. It is okay if you still don’t agree at the end of the conversation. 

4. If you disagree, prepare to set aside your emotions and responses.

If you disagree with what the person is saying, you will have to fight the desire to jump in, “correct,” debate, judge, and share your own anger and hurt. If your goal is to listen, then you need to acknowledge those other emotions in your head and heart when they arise, set them aside for now, and keep listening. There is a time and place for you to share your opinions and emotions (and relieve your own pressure), but you can’t talk and listen at the same time. If you are not emotionally strong enough at that moment or don’t feel safe enough to listen to someone, it is in everyone’s best interest to step away from the situation. 

5. Even if you agree, you may still be a poor listener. 

Even when we agree with someone, we can be poor listeners. Many people get excited when another person shares a concern, anger, or even joy. Rather than listening, they become the talker: sharing stories and releasing their own pressure. Be aware that you have stopped being the listener when you do that. Even if you agree with the person, it does not change their need for someone to listen to them.

6. Venting: Encourage and brace for this first layer.

There are two main layers that you want to try and get through when listening: venting and searching.  The first layer is all the stuff bottled up close to the surface: things they’ve been waiting to say.  It often comes out quickly with stronger emotion. Do as little talking as possible. Let the person vent. Be encouraging through short feedback (e.g., “ Go on.” “I’m listening.” I’d like to hear more.” “That must be scary.”)  Don’t be afraid of pauses. The person may need to collect thoughts, gather courage to go on, and take deep breaths. The pauses allow for this process. Do not take it personally even if part of the venting is directed towards you. There will be time later to sort out how you may or may not be part of the issue. You need to get to the next layer first.   

7. Searching: Dig deep for patience and empathy to go further in the second layer.

The second layer goes deeper: searching. After a layer of venting, the person talking can go deeper to better understand and articulate underlying fears and hurt that often fuel anger.  The person will need to have built some trust in you first before the searching layer happens, which can come when they see there was room to vent. Revisit the "why" in your listening, if your instinct is to debate at this point. Ask gentle questions fueled not by a motivation to prove the person wrong, but rather to understand more why the person feels that way.  Each situation is different, but here are some examples of questions: “Can you tell me more about the pain?,” “What would you want people to know?,” and  “Have you always felt this way?”  Neither of you can reach this searching layer without allowing the venting to happen first.

8. Reflect back what you hear without sarcasm or judgment.

To see if you are understanding, paraphrase or reflect back what you’ve heard.  It is important to do so without adding a tone of sarcasm or judgment. You are doing a “check” to see if what you are hearing is the same thing that the person is trying to communicate. We interpret words and examples differently. This phase of your listening helps to cut down on damaging assumptions and keeps us from jumping to conclusions.  It also helps to separate what was said in the heat of venting versus what a person may still feel or think after some pressure has been relieved.

9. Give undivided attention—in person.

Keep your eyes away from the phone. Keep your focus on the person talking. When your mind and eyes wander, the person picks up those clues that you are ready to be done listening. Effective listening cannot be done through tweets or Facebook posts. We need to get back to more face-to-face communication. This can take time, but it also can be helpful even in passing conversations. Be ready for opportunities to give someone the gift of your undivided attention. We can help people release pressure even in short exchanges.    

10. Protect yourself and others emotionally and physically.

There are times when you need to step away from a situation to protect yourself physically and/or emotionally. Learning to be a good listener does not mean you give up the right to defend yourself and others. You still have the right to refuse to go deeper in a conversation with someone who causes you anxiety or poses a threat in other ways. It is normal to have the capacity to be a good listener for some people, while other relationships pose more difficulties. Building trust and learning to listen is a life-long process.   You might also realize that the person you are listening to needs more help than you can give.  Reach out to others for more help when needed.  

There is a lot to take in with these ten tips of effective listening. Make an effort to do what you can. Finally, you need to know that the person for whom you are a listener may not be a good listener for you. That’s okay. You may need to find someone different to help you relieve pressure. But often, because you take time to listen and invest in people, they are then more ready to listen to you. 

What if everyone starts listening at the same time and no one is talking? Yeah, I’m not too worried about that. And if it does happen?  Maybe we’ll hear the birds singing again.  

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