How to Actively Listen During Triggering Conversations

How to keep your heart and mind open when you want to plug your ears.

Posted Oct 29, 2020

Basil Byrne/Flickr
Source: Basil Byrne/Flickr

Whenever I’m faced with a difficult conversation about an emotionally charged issue, I always ask myself, “How can I listen in a way that is open to really taking in what the other person shares? How do I not immediately get caught in needing to prove that I’m right? What I can get curious about so that I can understand the other person more deeply?” and “How can I empathize with their pain and narrative while without compromising the integrity of my own pain and experience?”

This is the challenge of active listening—to get your ego to step aside so we can deeply understand another’s experience. It can be especially challenging if we are uncertain whether they, in turn, will be able to understand our pain, we hear the faintest prelude to a character attack, or if we start to feel defensive or doubtful about our own stance.

Active listening is different than simply hearing. You can hear words that come out of a person’s mouth. But taking them in, reflecting on them, letting them penetrate your heart is an entirely different experience. 

That’s why active listening requires trust and respect. The listener must trust that the speaker will express themselves in a respectful, non-attacking way. The speaker must speak respectfully, and trust that the listener is truly interested in taking in what is shared. The unspoken agreement is both the active listener and speaker must be mutually invested in understanding each other and coming to a positive resolution. If one party doesn’t care, or intent on blaming, such listening will be impossible.

The basic goal of active listening is to help you step into the shoes of the speaker so you can get a felt sense of their experience, and reflect back what you’ve heard until they feel understood. Only then can you step back into your own experience.

Here are some general guidelines that nurture active listening:

  • Take a pause: Before you engage in active listening with someone you’ve hurt and/or has hurt you, be sure that you’re in a calm state of mind, as it’s very hard to listen when your blood is boiling. 
  • Pay attention: Listen with all of your senses, making sure that your cellphones are off and there no other distractions.
  • Give non-verbal feedback: Show that you’re listening using eye contact, smiling, and leaning in.
  • Assume a poster of curiosity: Ask clarifying questions when you don’t understand something.
  • Mirror: Reflect back what is said word for word to make sure you have received the communication correctly, and that the other person feels heard. For example, “What I heard you say is that you felt angry when I didn’t do the dishes like I said I would. Is that right?”
  • Summarize: When the speaker has finished expressing themselves, summarize all that you have heard (like mirroring but more comprehensive). 
  • Let Go of Judgments: The Buddhist concept of “Beginner’s Mind” asks that the listener be in a state of non-judgmental open-minded curiosity so he/she can really take in what is being said. 
  • Be Patient: Don’t fill in silences. Let the speaker take their time expressing themselves.
  • Listen for Underlying Emotions: If you’re struggling with the validity of the story you’re hearing, try to focus on the underlying emotions the person is expressing. Maybe you never said you’d do the dishes, or they didn’t hear you say you’d do them later on tonight. But if they thought you’d promised to do them this morning, it makes sense that they’d be angry or hurt. From there, you might even say, “It makes sense that you would be angry and hurt if you thought I said I’d do the dishes today.” That will help diffuse some of the tension. When it’s your turn to speak, you can explain that you said you needed to relax after a hard week and you’d do them later, but it’s possible they didn’t hear you over the television background noise.
  • Notice Body Sensations: Observe any and all sensations in your body as you listen. See if you can silently acknowledge them, without acting on them. If it’s a particularly strong sensation, it may indicate that the conversation could be triggering an old wound that’s bigger and deeper than the issue at hand.  If so, you might want to let the other person know that you’re noticing your body heating up, tightening etc. and that you suspect it’s hitting an old nerve. You can also make a note of it yourself, and explore it later on your own or with a trusted friend or therapist.

Speaking for Your Parts

Another way to remain present during difficult conversations is to notice and, when appropriate, speak for the different parts of yourself that get activated, as I've discovered through my training in Internal Family Systems (IFS).

IFS, also known as “parts work,” assumes that we are multi-faceted beings with many different parts of ourselves that sometimes have opposite goals and motivations. For example, a part of you may be reading this blog to see how you can stay open and really listen as you face a difficult conversation, while another part of you may be thinking deep down that that the other person is wrong. Maybe you have parts of you that want to leave a relationship and parts that want to stay and fight for it. If you’ve ever felt ambivalent or of “two minds,” then you know what it’s like to have parts of yourself that seem to be working against each other.

As you are listening, it can be helpful to notice what parts are triggered by that conflict. Maybe there is a part that wants feels responsible, a part that wants to finger point, a part that is afraid of being shamed, a part that wants to run away, a part that is worried about the future of your relationship, a part that fears being wrong, and a part that struggles to stand up for yourself. You may feel many different ways at the same time, which is normal. See if you can simply observe the parts without acting on them.

Once you’ve noticed what parts are being triggered, you can speak for them after the person has finished communicating. Speaking for a part may sound like this: “Right now, as I’m listening to you, there is a part of me that wants to plug my ears because it’s hard to hear how I’ve hurt you, a part that wants to defend myself, and a part that wants to blame you so I don’t have to feel like the bad guy. I’m also noticing a part that is also hurting because of what you did and said. There’s also a part that really wants to heal this relationship and doesn’t know how.”

Can you see how speaking for those parts is better than actually plugging your ears, blaming, running away, and defending yourself?

The following exercise will help you identify and understand your parts so they don’t get in the way:

Step 1: Fill in the blank:

When (person A) does whatever he/she does (for example, blames, criticizes) me, I become aware of the part(s) of me that _________________________.

Make a list of the parts or parts that get triggered. You may have one or more than one, and that’s not only OK, it’s perfectly normal. Here are some examples:

  • the part that gets defensive
  • the part that feels guilty
  • the part that feels incompetent
  • the part that gets angry
  • the part that feels worthless
  • the part that feels invisible
  • the part that gets scared
  • the part that feels abandonment
  • the part that feels wronged

Step 2: 

Sense into which part feels the most intense. Use that part as the basis for the remainder of this exercise. If there is another part that is a close second or third, take turns doing this exercise with each of the parts until you feel satisfied.

Step 3:  

Answer the following questions:

  1. What is the history of this part? How has it shown up in your life before? 
  2. How has it gotten in the way of your best self?
  3. What circumstances may have shaped the creation of this part—for example, an overbearing or critical parent or perhaps a childhood illness that prevented you from engaging in the same activities as other children?
  4. What is the meaning you make of the part's existence? For example, do you assume that having it makes you unlovable? What might be an alternate, positive interpretation?  

Once you have a better grasp of your triggers, you can speak about them in a way that takes ownership of them without blaming, improving your chances of being understood. If this all seems like hard work, that’s because it is. But the potential for improved communication and stronger relationships is worth the effort.