Sunday, November 30, 2008

Listening Skills

Today I had a conversation with someone who has been repeatedly vexing me.  When we speak I feel like I have to fight her every step of the way to reach any kind of connection and understanding. 

We both agreed that our communications aren't working out, and she is receptive to some feedback.  So I'm teaching her some of the "active listening" techniques I learned in psychotherapy school.  I thought I'd pass them along to y'all, because good listening is easy to do and is truly helpful in one's relationships.

When someone is speaking to you about something that stirs their emotions, these techniques are helpful.

1) Resist the urge to give advice, especially if you weren't invited to do so.  Giving advice sends the message 

"I know you, and your life, better than you do".   

It's condescending.   Even good advice is disempowering.

If you are invited to give advice, it's probably because the person you're speaking with is having trouble making a choice.  Whichever side you pick, the other person will most likely begin to argue for the other option, externalizing the arguments they've been having with themselves inside their head.  This will probably just leave you both frustrated.

2) Ask open-ended questions.  Examples:
  • What would be the worst-case scenario?
  • Ideally, how would you like to see this turn out?
  • What do you think she'd say if she knew how you really felt?
Basically, any question that leads other other person to consider an angle that they hadn't considered before is useful.  Usually when someone has a problem that's bugging them, they get caught in a repeating thought-cycle, which is frustrating and non-productive.  

If you try to change their mind directly, they'll resist you, because most people don't want to admit that their viewpoint is incomplete or flawed.  You can't directly break the cycle, but you can introduce a train of thought that leads the other person out of their rut.  See if you can persuade them to look deeper, or think of something they haven't thought of before, just by asking questions.  It's sneaky, and it works.

3)  Paraphrase what the person has just told you, and repeat it back to them, also recognizing whatever emotional content they've expressed.  Then validate the emotion.  
For example:
"So, you've been studying really hard for exams for three weeks, you're burned out, and completely freaking about your test tomorrow.  That's rough.  I remember feeling like that when I was in school."
"I understand that the doctor has kept you waiting for two hours, you're in pain, and you feel that the staff has been ignoring you.  I'm so sorry.  You must be beyond frustrated.   I would feel the same way if I were in your shoes."

It doesn't matter if you think you would be more patient or more calm or whatever.  Identify with the emotion as much as you genuinely can, and let the person know you respect their feelings.

You might think it sounds really fake and scripted, but as you get more practice with it you'll begin to incorporate the techniques naturally.  Generally the person you're speaking with will be receptive to the content of what you're saying, even if it comes off as slightly awkward.

4) Avoid any use of or implication of the word "should".  For example:
  • You should calm down/just relax/chill out!
Nothing annoys people more than being told to calm down.
  • You shouldn't feel like that!
My mother says this to me when she wants to rescue me from some kind of negative emotion that I'm feeling.  I know she means well, but it comes across sounding like "You're feeling the wrong feelings!   I know what you should feel.  You're wrong, and I'm right.  Feel this other way!"
  • You should just [insert advice].
See point 1) above regarding the perils of advice.  Also, using "just" trivializes the problem and the solution.  It implies "I don't see why you're making such a big deal about this."  Which invalidates the other person's emotions, which puts them on the defensive, and then you're back to arguing and frustration.

Bottom line: shoulds, musts, oughts, and have to's are bad.

And that's it.  Four easy tips to smooth, productive communications. Listen, give feedback on the content, validate the emotion, and don't give advice.  You all graduate with gold stars from this short course on active listening.  Now go forth and listen!


Warped Mind of Ron said...

"And how does that make you feel?"
"What do you think of that?"
"I see...."
"Did that bother you?"

Nilsa said...

I love this directive. I've always considered myself a good listener ... because I tend not to put my own personal beliefs on that person. Instead, I try to have a conversation that allows the other person to seek answers to the alternatives. And then I let them figure out what's best for them. Because one thing I've learned from experience ... just because it's right for me doesn't ever mean it's right for you!

Nicole said...

Very valuable tips!
Thanks :)!

Karen said...

This is good advice. Great post.

Anonymous said...

I don't have the patience to do all that. I'll keep doing things the old fashioned way.

Sparkling Red said...

Ron: You can quit your job and become a professional counsellor right now! You've got it down pat. ;-)

Nilsa: It's a win-win situation, because the other person gets to feel heard and you also can state your point of view in such a way that you don't end up arguing.

Nicole: You're welcome. :-)

Karen: Thanks!

Unsigned: Are you sure? This way is actually a lot easier, once you're good at it.

Dianne said...

I learned some of this in a 'conflict resolution' class

excellent points and they all work

now just need to remember lol

Kathleen said...

"And how does that make you feel?" LOLOLOL I totally tease my therapist about this line of hers. When I saw her the first time early to mid-90s, she used it all the time. She uses it less often these days, but when she does we both erupt into peals of laughter.

Jenski said...

Thanks for sharing these tips!

Sparkling Red said...

Dianne: True - if it's someone close to you or if you're in a position of defending yourself, it's not easy to put these tactics into effect. I find it useful at work, but at home sometimes I can't stay so detached.

Kathleen: Yeah, that's an overused line, for sure! Having been to psychotherapy school, I knew a few versions. "If your feeling was a colour, what colour would it be?" Not always a helpful query. ;-)

Jenski: My pleasure. :-)

Warped Mind of Ron said...

Awww... {{HUGS}} for you Nitwit update.

Sparkling Red said...

Thanks Ronnie! You're tha best.

Keera Ann Fox said...

Some good points, and I realize I've goofed on a couple. This was a nice reminder on how to listen correctly! Thanks, Spark!

jameil1922 said...

"You shouldn't feel like that!" has to be the most hilarious phrase ever! How can you tell someone how they should feel? That's too funny. In a baffling way. I noticed in high school or maybe freshman year in college that if you tell people one way, they usually just go with the opposite so i started asking some of those listening skills questions. Looks like I should be a psychotherapist or just admit my awesomeness. The latter is much easier. Lol. At least the person you have issue with is open to suggestion.

Anonymous said...

one word-- alprozolam

Marc Wong said...

Good points. I too have found the need to say something about listening. My post is here: