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Russell Grieger Ph.D.
Russell Grieger Ph.D.

Happiness With Others 8: Listen, Listen, Listen

Being heard is the psychological equivalent of air

Imagine yourself sitting comfortably in a huge lounge chair, a soft blanket covering your lap and legs. Outside the panoramic floor to ceiling picture window is a beautiful lake, framed by tall trees floating their gold and red leaves to the ground, the setting sun rippling sparkles to the shore. Soft, yet rich music plays in the background. A fire crackles, keeping you cozy and snug.

Best yet, you are surrounded by the four people you most love in the world. You are reminiscing with them about the marvelous times you've shared, all of you feeling the warmth of your life-long bond. You couldn't be more contented or happy.

As you sit there, looking from one person to the other, listening to them share their memories, you realize you are finding it hard to breathe. You take deep breaths to fill your lungs, but they don’t fill. You gasp for air. Nothing. Your eyes dart to your loved ones who are reacting as you.

Somehow the oxygen is being sucked out of the room and you can't breathe. All of you scramble to the door, but it's bolted from the outside. The windows are sealed, the glass unbreakable.

You’re suffocating. Panic sets in you as you run from one possible escape route to another. The fact that you may die blocks out the music, the autumn splendor, the warming fire, even your loved ones. Nothing matters except filling your lungs with air. You realize you'd climb over them to get out if it came to that.

So, what's the point of this story? To borrow from Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, being listened to is the psychological equivalent of air. It is the deepest hunger of the human heart. It communicates to another: “You matter to me, I find you of value, I care for and respect you.” It warms and nourishes the spirit. It stimulates affection. It solidifies bonds. It adds to human happiness.

I experienced the rewards of being listened to just last night. At a wedding reception, my wife's brother, Joe, a man I already liked and respected, sidled up next to me and asked, “What's this I hear about you contracting to write a book?”

He looked me in the eye and nodded, listening as I blathered on about my book. He then peppered me with questions about what motivates me to work as hard as I do, what, if any, plans I had for retirement, what advice I might have for him as he goes forward. All the while he gave me his full attention, doing nothing but expressing interest and absorbing.

I loved being the center of this attention. More important for the theme of this blog, I left the conversation with the pleasure of feeling warm and connected to Joe, more willing to reciprocate his interest in kind, primed to do my part to build a relationship-building victorious circle that would add to both our life’s happiness.

I'm sure you've had similar experiences. What I felt is what others feel when you listen to them. Feeling thusly affirmed, this is how they become motivated to reciprocate your caring. Listening spreads happiness to them that rebounds back to you like a basketball.

The Listening Technology

Good listening takes place when person one understands both the ideas and emotions person two communicates and provides person two the experience of being thusly heard. Person one listens to person two’s thoughts with the mind and to the feelings with the heart. It starts not with technique, but with the genuine intention to listen.

Contrast that with what most of us do when we listen. We drift to other things while nodding and uttering our “uh-huh’s.” We pay attention to only the parts of what people say about which we agree. We judge what other person is expressing as right or wrong, good or bad. We spend our time figuring out what we want to say without really paying attention, biding our time till the speaker closes his or her yap.

With the genuine intention to listen, you can do so at any one of five levels.

(1) Just button your lip, clear your mind, look the other person in the eye, and pay attention.

(2) Do all the above, plus nod and give verbal affirmations: “Uh, huh;” “okay;” “yeah.”

(3) Listen carefully to the ideas expressed, sum them up in your own words, and paraphrase them back to the person. For example, “So, Bob, what you're saying is that Obamacare is the worst (best) piece of legislation you’ve ever seen.”

(4) Listen carefully to the feelings expressed, capture them in your own words, and feed them back, as per, “You sound really disgusted (thrilled) with that piece of legislation.”

(5) Listen carefully to both the ideas and the feelings the person expresses, gather both together in your mind, and feed them back to the person in your own words. “So, Bob, you really are upset (thrilled) with Obamacare because you think it is the most destructive (wonderful) piece of legislature ever.”

The higher you go up the list, the more intention and effort it takes because the deeper you bore in. But, the positive input on the person and the relationship, can pay off in spades.

Regardless of the level at which you listen, you give a lot of attention and energy to what the other person communicates. Without judging, assessing, evaluating, planning on what to say, or even agreeing or disagreeing, you leave your own head and get into both the head and heart of the other person. You’re showing the kind of understanding and respect that builds happy relationships.

When To Listen

Listening to another person can be valuable at any time, especially when we realize how rewarding it is for the other person to get the kind of respect listening communicates. Yet there are certain times when listening is a particularly valuable interpersonal action to take.

1. When we are not sure we understand what another thinks or feels. Unless we shut our mouth and open our ears, we can never get the information we need to understand what we don't know.

2. When the other person doesn't feel understood. When a person doesn't feel understood, he or she will react with at least frustration and perhaps even with anger and resentment. You might need the information they have, but are you really willing to damage the relationship by not bothering to take the little time needed to get it? Better to slow down and listen at these times so that the other person feels understood, keeping an eye on the big picture rather than the immediate moment.

3. When you want to build goodwill. As with Disney World’s customer service motto, “Everything speaks,” when you listen to another you speak interest, affection, and respect. You thereby create the trust and goodwill that will predictably come back to you. Don't forget — trust is the glue that binds relationships together.

4. When the other person is upset. An upset person will predictably find it difficult to communicate and cooperate with you. Helping this person defuse their upset by listening to them has the power to gain an ally in the problem solving process. Moreover, listening to an upset person serves to garner the goodwill that often translates into warmth and friendship.

5. When win-win problem solving is important. To find a solution to a problem that works for both parties, each person must not only understand their win, but the win of the other person as well. The only way to understand the other person's win is to listen.

Live It

I imagine that by now you understand that listening a very valuable relationship happiness skill to master. But to master listening, you must practice and practice until it becomes a habit. Try to integrate the following five strategies into your daily life until you get good at it.

1. Get motivated. Think of five times when someone did not listen to you. How did it feel? Was it warm and fuzzy, or frustrating and annoying? What were the resultant feelings when this person did not listen to you? How did it affect your relationship with this person going forward? Remember? It is so gratifying to be heard that it is hard not to feel good about the person who listens to you. To the contrary, to be frustrated in your desire to be heard leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Think about it. There are two outcomes you can create when you encounter another person. Knowing the costs of not listening can motivate you to practice getting better at it.

2. Practice it. Once a day practice listening to another person. Use any of the five levels of listening you want. Just intend on listening to the other person and do it. Keep up the practice day after day for a month and, like lifting a weight, watch yourself grow stronger at it.

3. Teach it. One of the best ways to learn something is to teach it to others. Teach your kids, your significant other, and anyone else you can find the ins-and-outs of listening. Then practice it with them.

4. Apply it. Identify those relationships in which you would be wise to use the skill of listening. What is your usual approach to these people? How often and how deeply do you listen? Specifically describe the listening technique you will use the next time you interact with each of these people. Then, follow through.

5. Eliminate barriers. Several things make it difficult to listen. Among the more common ones are emotional arousal, ego, and impatience. When you are upset, think you are so important that people must listen to you, or find it difficult to take the time, listening becomes impossible. Do any of these barriers apply to you? If so, be aware of when they become activated so you can consciously override them and listen.

Going Forward

Being happy in life in part depends on being happy with others. One of the key strategies to maximize happiness in your interpersonal life is listening. The ability to truly listen to another serves not only to provide you with valuable information from and about them, but it builds strong bonds that gives you immediate pleasure and goes a long way toward insuring pleasure in the future.

Listening is a skill that can be learned by anyone who is willing to commit the time and energy. But, trust me, the effort is well worth the reward, for there is nothing more gratifying than sharing warmth and affection with a person you truly value and appreciate

My hope is that you engage in the exercises I laid out. I know you can improve your ability to genuinely listen to others. I know you can improve the quality of your relationships by doing so. I know you can bolster your happiness quotient by building a healthy dose of listening into your relationship with others. Just do it.

Until my next blog, live healthy, happy, and with passion.

Russell Grieger, Ph.D. is the author of several self-help books, all designed to empower people to create a life they love to live. These include: Unrelenting Drive; Marriage On Purpose, and The Happiness Handbook (in preparation). You may contact Dr. Grieger for more information at

About the Author
Russell Grieger Ph.D.

Russell Grieger, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, an organizational consultant and trainer, and an adjunct professor at The University of Virginia.

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