Instead of Trying to Hear Me, Could You Listen Please?

Instead of trying to hear me, could you listen please?

Posted Aug 09, 2011

Empathic attunement is both a good place to be with your partner and the way to get there.

empathic attunement

empathic attunement

Hearing as we all know is a most complicated operation. But even though it takes a fully functional spiral ganglion to send information through the auditory portion of the eighth cranial nerve and on to the temporal lobe, many of us have all of that going on but still feel unsure about what it takes to listen with empathy.

Listening brings us beyond a blueprint for sound perception into the heart of knowing, loving, nourishing, understanding.

We constantly fine-tune the listening-learning process in order to wring meaning from messages. Listening draws on all the senses; non-verbal cues are often more essential than words. We listen for what our partners say and for what they haven't articulated but may - we intuit -- want to get across. Listening takes imagination.

To listen is to compare and contrast. We hold what we hear in working memory and proceed to compare and contrast this with recalled perception.



Associated images and memories inform us about many aspects of what we are hearing. We entertain hypotheses about what our partner may be trying to say and we actively rule in and/or rule out our hunches about where the communication is going. Through listening we do not simply hear what is said, we illuminate it. We don't simply put it into perspective. We create the perspective with which to best understand it.

If we can listen with openness we can resist making assumptions that foreclose possible meaning. For example, there are times when our partner may say something they've said in the past only, in the present, they may be intending a new meaning. Can we be spontaneous enough in our listening to sense that two messages that sound similar may hold different meanings? Sometimes this ability marks the difference between establishing a new beginning in understanding and exacerbating an old argument. Remember: it is not so much the words that are spoken but their intended  meaning that merits our abiding attention. Words can create clear and accurate messages, of course, but equally true: words can get in the way. Good listening means listening to the words and more.

listening with openness

listening with openness

As the listening process progresses what we've heard wends its way through many neural networks. Nuance accumulates and focus develops. We consider many qualities of our partner's message: intensity, spontaneity, intentionality, continuity, authenticity, originality, its core quality, accuracy, gravity, levity.

We bring to bear our own experience in understanding what another's is like. In a matter of milliseconds we can find ourselves grasping how it feels if we were the originator of the thought or feeling that our partner has expressed.

There are so many aspects of potential meaning in human communication that it is not surprising that we sometimes can get lost within the listening. Staying with the original message is a rare and valuable relational skill.

Our efforts in following this listening-path in search of the genuine meaning our partner intended can succeed in varying degrees. It takes humility to own this.

Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, we achieve only a coarse and misleading impression of their state of mind. At other times we may capture a detailed and dead-on understanding of their internal experience.

Can we be open and flexible enough to discuss what we think we have understood? If so we can achieve collaborative understandings.

Understandings even about how and where differences exist can be stepping stones towards healing and love.

When couples come in for couples counseling complaining of poor communication, often what they explain is that they do not experience their partner as getting what they feel inside. They feel invisible or misunderstood by their partner. This isolation is painful and a threat to any relationship.

On the other hand, consider this thought: deep listening provides the most powerful antidote to feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety, bewilderment, alienation and loneliness that one person can offer another. Deep listening is at the core of mature love. Many couples find that improved intimacy in conversation brings about greater intimacy in other aspects of their life together. 

Try this!

Try this!

Thanks for listening!

Remember, love and good feelings are plentiful yet elusive; I'll be around to help you locate and develop them in the Middle Ground.

About the Author

Marty Babits is Co-Director of Family and Couples Treatment Service, a division of the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York City.

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