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How to Listen and What to Say

A simple way to show caring.

Photo by Gustavo Fring on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Gustavo Fring on Unsplash

I recently took a bus for the first time since covid-19 descended on us all, and couldn’t help hearing the conversation of two women sitting behind me. It went something like this.

‘I’m so worried about Bill. I know there is something seriously bothering him because he’s snappy, which isn’t like him. He was like that a while ago and it turned out he had some symptoms which the doctor wanted him to have checked out. He didn’t get round to it for ages, by which time he was expecting the worst, and then he had the test and got the all clear. And I knew none of this until he told me that he was all right! “I didn’t want to worry you,” he said. Now it is like that again and he keeps batting me away if I ask anything—’

‘—My sister’s husband’s like that,’ her companion interjected. ‘He keeps everything to himself, even when it is something good, like a possible promotion. It drives my sister mad.’

In the short silence that followed, I had to leave my seat to exit the bus, and didn’t hear how, or if, the conversation progressed.

As I continued my journey on foot, I reflected on how the first speaker must have felt. She was expressing concern that her husband/father/son was again hiding symptoms of possibly serious illness, yet her friend wanted to tell her own story. Many people ‘listen’ like that. They mean well and think they are showing interest by relating the circumstance they are hearing about to something that they themselves have experienced, whereas, in reality, they are cutting off what the speaker wanted to express.

We so often don’t hear what others are telling us because we are already making our own interpretations or bringing in our own assumptions. It is why counsellors commonly apply the skill of paraphrasing – listening to the client (who may be pouring out a convoluted story in an emotional rush) and then feeding back, in their own words, a shortened version of what they think they have heard, so that the client can correct them if they have got it wrong. It is a skill we can all benefit from using: ‘So, if I have got this right, Mandy, what you are saying here is that…?'

John Gottman, the renowned American relationships counsellor and researcher, recommends this approach to couples as a means of discussing relationship differences calmly and effectively, instead of ending up fighting. They agree to discuss a particular topic of concern to one or both, taking turns to put their position. While one is speaking, the other listens without breaking in, and then summarises what they think they have heard. It is not about agreeing with the content, but about checking they understand what the other one actually said. The other corrects any misapprehensions and the partner summarises, and on it goes until both are clear. Then it is the partner’s turn to put their view and the procedure is reversed.

By sticking to the topic, and not sidestepping into critical comments or past grievances, they are much more likely to get to understand each other’s perspective – and work towards some mutually agreeable solution.

Knowing what to say is also a form of listening. Many years ago, I wrote an article for the Sunday Times, for which I interviewed people who had suffered personal tragedies or serious setbacks and asked what responses from those who knew their situations had most helped – and most hurt.

I remember a woman who was undergoing treatment for advanced cancer and a woman whose husband had tragically died both saying how hurt they were when they saw someone they knew cross the street rather than speak to them, or a friend stopped phoning.

The individuals probably crossed the street or failed to phone because they didn’t know what they could say that would help. They were embarrassed. Yet expressing something simple with genuine caring, such as ‘I am so sorry to hear about your illness/your husband’s death’, means another’s distress is acknowledged – and that can be what matters most.

I imagine it would have been more helpful for the worried woman on the bus if her friend had said, ‘Oh, how dreadful for you. You must be so concerned.’ In such circumstances, there may be a useful suggestion to offer for dealing with the difficulty. And very often there is not.

In which case, what helps is simply to let someone feel heard.

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