10 Steps to Becoming a Better Listener
How often have we engaged in confrontations that back-fire; where we have confronted someone with the intention of fixing the problem, to only find it worse than before? What really is happening during these conversations that seem to rage war rather than peace? What can we do to avoid the disconnect so frequently present in conflict resolution?
It never ceases to amaze me, when approaching “conflict” with the intention of correcting, persuading or arranging things for the better (i.e. better for me), that things never do turn out for the better. No one likes being told “I told you so” or being taught a lesson by someone they feel is “against” them or superior to them.
Is it even possible to receive openly when the conversation is not open-ended? What feelings surface when we find ourselves in a conversation in which we do not feel heard; where our feelings are discredited or shamed?
When engaging in conversations with the sole goal of winning the argument, we end up feeling disconnected, frustrated and superior while the other is left feeling misunderstood and inadequate. The results of this struggle? Withdrawal and disconnect. The very opposite of what we are looking truly searching for.
What if, instead of trying proving our point or correct behaviour we cannot control, we engaged in an open-ended conversation based on curiosity and tolerance?
When the purpose of a conversation is to listen; to fully receive what the other is saying, it often results in a feeling of connectedness. Then, and only then, are we are able to drop the project of being right and truly meet the feelings and experiences that are being shared with us. Compassion and empathy arise naturally when you are able to hear another’s truth. Not an absolute truth but what feels real for another. And while the conflict at hand may not be resolved, the feelings that are shared are so powerful and connecting that the conflit often melts away or at least gains a proper sense of proportion.
When we drop the hidden agenda of needing to be right in a confrontation, when listening and understanding is the only goal at hand, we get to the heart of the matter; to what is real.
But compassionate listening is a real art and one that unfolds throughout an entire lifetime – with practice.
Here are a some things to be aware of when engaging in a heated discussion.
1. Don’t interrupt
Being interrupted adds fuel to the fire and creates more dissonance where connection is already being compromised. Let the speaker finisher their point, to really “unpack” and get the whole story out on the table. When we allow someone to speak without interruption, we offer a space where all aspects of the situation can be fully divulged rather than stick to our limited vantage point. This will not only allow you to better understand their perspective, but it will also allow you to see what emotions are linked it.
2. Don’t correct the facts
Facts are one thing and perception is another but beyond the facts is the emotional experience of what has gone down. Correcting the facts undermines someones experience of a situation. While facts may seem very important sometimes it’s not so much about what happened but what someone experienced during that moment. This does not mean validating incorrect data, it simply means allowing for the experience to “feel real” rather than it be denied due to facts. This too will allow us to get to the heart of the matter and see what story the other is playing in their mind.
According to Nagel, “our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience” meaning that each individual only knows what it is like to be them. Objectivity requires an unbiased, non-subjective state of perception. For Nagel, the objective perspective is not feasible, because humans are limited to subjective experience.
3. Don’t make excuses
Justifying or rationalizing our behaviour is a defence mechanism that detracts us from seeing the truth. Taking ownership for our behaviour and allowing the other the freedom to feel just as they do is a way of practicing love and compassion.
Excuses are explanations we use for hanging on to behaviours we don’t like about ourselves; they are self-defeating behaviours we don’t know how to change.
– Wayne Dyer
4. Don’t shift the focus or change the subject
Like correcting the facts, changing the subject or creating distractions is a way of not facing underlying feelings that arise with conflict. Allow the uncomfortable feelings of dissonance to be present. It is in these moments that we truly grow and expand. Without the contrast of uneasy feelings, we never have the opportunity to truly enjoy ease and pleasure. Take a few deep breaths if you find this place really uncomfortable.
5. Don’t diminish what the other is saying
What feels important or even big for someone may be nothing at all for us. But that’s not the point. The point of compassionate listening is to connect not alienate. Rather than placing the priority on agreeing, we shift the focus of hearing what is important for the other.
By providing the space to be different, we allow ourselves to cash in on the richness of our diversity.
6. Listen without judgement
There is no right or wrong, there is only perception. Keeping this in mind when entering a difficult discussion will help to keep judgement at bay. When we sense that we are being judged, we clam up and keep to ourselves making reconciliation a distant ideal.
7. Don’t take things personally
When we allow others to be who they are and we stop clinging to a specific identity, role or status, we allow ourselves to release the conditions that define us and imprison us in our relationships. We begin to see how the world appears through the lens of another and we may even be able to zoom out enough to see the big picture, that is, how our specific roles and identities feed the dynamic we are engaged in. We can take ownership for what is ours and stop being on the defensive. Most of all, we can allow the other to have their own opinions, feelings and needs since they do not define, limit or control us. They simply are.
8. All feelings are allowed
Successfully engaging in conflict resolution requires courage, an open heart and trust. By creating a safe place for our feelings to arise, we allow each person to have their own feelings, perspective, needs and wants. Allow all feelings to be present without judgement. Once we can allow the full range of our own feelings to exist, we can begin to accept them in others. By understanding that we are not our feelings, we begin to free ourselves. When we feel a certain emotion, we can simply notice it and name it by using simple statements such as “I am feeling sad”. Refraining from using the word I AM with emotions will help us to unhook from identifying with them. “I am sad” is starkly different from “I feel sad”. In the first, we are limiting ourselves to BEING sad while in the latter, it is simply an emotion passing through us.
9. Be your own best friend
When the emotions become too intense, place your hand on your heart and remind yourself that you are simply moving through a challenge that will find resolve. Bear witness to what is arising without getting upset with yourself by saying comforting words such as “It’s ok, sweetheart.” If you have a pet/nick name that you like, using it may help you to connect with your inner goodness. We are our own worst critics during times of hardship and sorrow. By staying present and being our own best friend, we give ourself the inner strength necessary to ride the waves of conflict.
10. Choose love over being right
Moving beyond the need to defend our identity and choosing connection and love above all encourages bonding. It is through this bonding that we cultivate compassion, empathy, acceptance and love. This is key to creating a positive cycle in the relationships around us.
In our communications, regardless of how simple or complex, when we listen with an open heart, compassion and empathy are able to manifest and the energy of the moment can be entirely transformed. A simple conversation can feel so effortless and rewarding, and a challenging situation can become a journey of discovery and connectivity. Like a flower blossoming, the relationship flourishes in a way that words just don’t seem to capture. It is a warm feeling inside, one of trust and safety, of partnership, of true love and understanding. It says I love you without words.
Each person has pain. We cannot be happy unless we are heard and understood. We must learn the art of speaking and listening. We want to listen to heal the suffering in the world. We must make no judgments. If we aren’t listened to, we become sick. We go to therapists.
In listening there must be no reacting. “Tell me what is hurting you” – then listen. If we need to listen to something negative about ourselves, instead of blaming another, making them feel bad, it is better to respond with “Oh – I see I made you suffer – tell me more so I will not do it again.”
This will stop our irritation.
Mindfulness is the blood of our consciousness. It will improve the quality of our consciousness.
Western medicine “cuts out and throws away”… Breathe. Increase the quality of your mindfulness and you increase the “healing blood”. Breathe three times before you respond to anything negative.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
If you have a story about compassionate listening, we’d all love to hear it. Send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org