Mary Aguilar, MSW, LCSW
I remember reading an article years ago… The author talked about how, when he attends weddings, he walks away from the weekend nuptials as the guy everyone likes, and the one everyone remembers. He was the guy whom, at the end of the celebrations, people were saying, “Wow, I met Fred. What a nice guy. He’s really great.” I remember reading the intro and the title to the article, before actually reading it, and thinking, “I already know how he does it… Active listening.” I started reading, and I was right! I had been teaching and practicing active listening for years in my profession as a counselor in Fort Wayne, and I knew of it’s power. The sweet, plain, boring, overlooked skill of listening to understand – active listening.
I think active listening is difficult to use, because it requires us to be so selfless. We must shift all our comfortable, egocentric energy onto being deeply attentive to someone else. It’s tiring. And difficult. And to be frank, I’d much rather be on the receiving end of the equation.
However, it’s power is undeniable. Gifting someone with your deep, undivided, curious, nonjudgmental attention creates powerful bonds, where the receiver feels understood, heard, cared for, loved.
If you’re up for trying it out, here a few skills to practice!
· Eye contact – Deep, intense eye contact is one of the simplest and easiest ways to communicate that you see someone, and you are giving your undivided attention. Put your phone down, put it away, face it down, turn off notifications. Now, this doesn’t require a staring contest! Just allow the other person to know, clearly, that you are paying attention to nothing else.
· Lean In – Show your interest with your body language. Lean toward them. Face toward them. Cross your leg toward them. Lean forward in your chair. Communicate with your body that you are present.
· Allow Silence & Talk less – Silence is uncomfortable. We want to fill it. We want to fill the void with our own thoughts and experiences. Resist the urge. Often, the person speaking needs a moment to stop, think, process, and collect their thoughts. Often, when we allow long moments of silence, the speaker re-engages the conversation with even deeper, more honest and vulnerable thoughts that were on their mind.
· Don’t Fix It – We also love to fill the silence with our own brilliant ideas on how to fix the speaker’s dilemma, how to improve on their situation, or ways we also dealt with a similar experience successfully. Unsolicited advice is just that, unsolicited. I have often heard Dave Ramsey quote his Grandmother in saying “Those convinced against their will, are of the same opinion still.” Advice does not work. It is not helpful. It does not convey you are listening.
· Listen for the Emotions – I saved the best for last, and the most difficult. I have found that the best trick to really maintain attention and listen with curiosity and nonjudgment for the speaker’s experience is to focus on the emotions they are feeling. Most of the time, they will not state their emotions. However, listen for them, guess, anticipate. And when there’s finally an opening for you to speak, reflect their emotions in a statement. Try saying “Wow, you must have felt so scared (enter other emotion word: excited, humiliated, terrified, proud, sad).”
Most of the skills described require no speaking at all! Our nonverbal communication is powerful and can easily communicate our care by itself. Enjoy practicing as I part with a final story.
One of my most vivid experiences with my best friend, was an evening when I had her over for dinner nearly 10 years ago. I spent time talking about a very deep hurt I had experienced. What I remember about that evening is feeling absolutely stunned by the care she conveyed to me. She sat quietly, not talking much. She’s always comfortable with silence. It’s one of things I love about her – we can be silent together. I never felt judged in the conversation for my own wrongdoings. Instead, she conveyed her wish that she could have been present for me through the hurtful time in my life. And the most powerful thing she did that night was name the emotion I didn’t even know I was feeling – shame. To this day, that conversation with her has helped me heal from the hurt simply through my understanding that I was feeling shame and it was shame that I needed to release in order to achieve healing. I’m not sure she understands the gift she gave me by listening so carefully that evening, but I certainly remember it clearly.