We all want to be heard. We want to be seen and understood. But how skilled are we at extending listening to others?
Here are six ways to sharpen your listening skills.
Listening can only happen if we’re in the present moment. When someone expresses a feeling or thought, try to stay present in your body and heart. This makes it easier to register their feelings and grasp their meanings. Empathy means noticing how another person is experiencing something.
Notice if you’re distracted by one of the following:
Are you in your head preparing a response?
Are you eager to show that they’re wrong or that you disagree?
Are you emotionally activated by what they’re saying, which makes it more difficult to listen openly?
These distractions are a natural part of being human. But we can practice being more mindful about when our attention gets hijacked. This gentle awareness can lead us back to being present for a person’s cares and concerns.
Amidst the pressures and demands of modern life, our caring for friends and loved ones may slip into the background. Relationships thrive when we truly care about each other’s feelings. Listening with a caring heart is perhaps the most precious gift we can offer another person.
Caring for others rests upon taking care of ourselves emotionally. Noticing and communicating our important feelings enables us to clear the air, which keeps our caring alive.
Listening is easier as we hear each other’s feelings before an emotional build-up disrupts trust and connection. Felt caring erodes when accumulated resentment and hurt have created a wall of distance.
It’s easy to forget to breathe deeply and freely when we feel agitated or stressed. Breathing often calms our nervous system so that we become more present — and better able to listen. Let your breathing be easy and relaxed when listening.
There is good reason to remind ourselves to practice conscious breathing even when we’re not agitated. Mindful breathing gets us out of our head and into our body, which is where we need to reside when listening. When we’re distracted by thoughts about the past or future, we’re no longer present — no longer able to listen deeply and empathically.
When we’re calm and quiet inside, we have more space to hear each other — we have a greater capacity to care. Breathing is one way to soothe ourselves. Another way is to attend to what we’re feeling as we listen.
Are we feeling sad as we hear about another’s pain or struggle? Can we make room for that sadness and be with it in a gentle way? Are we getting defensive? Are we pressuring ourselves to offer advice or fix someone’s problem? We’re better positioned to listen as we find ways to relax and soothe ourselves as we attend to another’s inner world.
Soothing ourselves might include reminding ourselves of the power of listening. Our job isn’t to fix their problem, but rather to extend our heartfelt caring. When people feel heard, they feel less alone and more relaxed, which helps them tap into inner resources to find their way forward.
Convey Your Understanding
Let people know that you’re hearing and understanding them. You can do this non-verbally through your kind eyes, nodding your head, or uttering some kind, affirmative sounds. Or, you can verbally tell them that you understand and that you appreciate them trusting you with their vulnerable feelings.
More than our words, people register our presence. People can often sense when we’re listening with an authentic, caring, non-shaming heart.
Listen to Yourself
Listen to yourself as you listen to others. Be mindful about what arises inside as you attend to them. Being gentle and kind toward yourself deepens your ability to offer the precious gift of listening to others. Noticing and holding your own feelings in a gentle, caring way provides a foundation for connection and intimacy.
© John Amodeo
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John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT is author of the award-winning book, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships. His other books include The Authentic Heart and He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for over 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has lectured and conducted workshops internationally.
flickr image by Markus Goller