“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand;
they listen with the intent to reply.”
My teenage son broke his curfew the other night. As I waited in bed—wide awake, waiting to hear the door open—I worried. One hour passed, then two.
When he finally arrived home safely, I was thankful that he was alive. As I tried to explain to him how worried I had been, he cut me off, his alibi ready.
While I listened to his explanation, I felt my frustration mount. Although I knew he was safe, I wanted him to acknowledge my worry. I needed him to listen to me.
How often do we truly listen? So often we only concentrate on our rebuttal, on our own defensive position. Rather than listening, we give advice, offer reassurance or try to explain our own feeling.
Listening with empathy
Instead of trying to convince the person of our point of view, what if we tried listening with empathy? Empathy means trying to understand what the other is experiencing. It calls on us to listen to the other with our whole being.
Instead of focussing on their words, we focus on their eyes, face and body language, and try to feel what their heart is saying, instead of the words coming out of their mouth.
Dr Marshall Rosenberg, author of the book Non-Violent Communication, suggests that “No matter what words others may use to express themselves, we listen for their observations, feelings, needs, and requests. Then we may wish to reflect back, paraphrasing what we have understood. We stay with empathy, allowing others the opportunity to fully express themselves before we turn our attention to solutions or requests for relief.”
In my case, my need was for validation and respect. Had my son said, “Wow, I see you were really worried; I’ll call next time,” I would have felt understood. Instead, I felt frustrated and unheard.
The real value of listening
So many of our misunderstandings come from us not really listening to one another. Each of us has our own internal dialogue that we attach to events—our own set of beliefs that we impose.
In this case, the event was my son coming home two hours past his curfew. The story that I gave to the event was that he was being disrespectful. But when I took my own dialogue out of the equation, I was able to see the event for what it was: a teenage boy who lost track of time. There was no intentional disrespect; he was simply having fun.
From this new perspective, I was able to have empathy. I took a moment to calm myself, and rather than getting annoyed or angry, I simply let him know that because he had been late, I had been feeling worried, and my need for safety and security had not been met. I made the request that next time he call if he was going to be late.
He was able to hear my request, and rather than both of us being angry with one another, we were able to communicate consciously.
Practising conscious communication
The fight was avoided, and the feelings of frustration and unmet needs were resolved, simply by practising conscious communication. Although this is easier said than done at first, working towards this way of communication is worth its weight in gold.
Two clients, a husband and wife, sat before me. She screamed at him, “You’re so insensitive and odd in your behaviour!” He looked at her and said, “I try so hard to make you happy.” Each one felt that they were right.
Her need was for him to listen compassionately, while he felt he was being asked to fix her problems. Each solution he presented was met with her frustration and anger that what she wanted wasn’t being met. Had he simply asked her to clarify her need, he could have offered it to her.
Perfection is not necessary
To have open, honest conversations with loved ones—to be able to tell them what’s on your mind and have them do the same, without breaching the mutual respect—results in fewer fights and more understanding, respect and love all around.
Imagine the peace this would bring to your relationships if you could shift just a bit closer to this way of communicating.
Perfection is not necessary. Just take every new situation and conversation as an opportunity to practise this new way of speaking and listening. It may not happen every time, but if you take one step back during one conversation, don’t worry. Pause, take a deep breath, and smile in gratitude towards yourself for trying. Then take two steps forward next time.
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