The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the verb lis-ten as “to hear something with thoughtful attention.” As I work with clients, I’m reminded repeatedly of how difficult this is for the trained therapist let alone those who are just going about their lives. Yet, to quiet the minutiae of data—past, present and future tasks and concerns—constantly swirling in our heads, is what it takes to really listen and be present for another. And in the end, perhaps what we all want and need more than anything, is to be heard.
The truth is that even when we can quiet our chattering minds, usually our brain is busy either preparing a rebuttal to what we are hearing “Yes, but ….” , or busy rehearsing what we’re going to say as soon as the person stops speaking. As parents, spouses and friends the ability to listen with empathy is especially critical for healthy relationships and keeping open a clear and caring line of communication. What do I mean by that? Listening with empathy means immersing yourself in the other’s experience with the purpose of better understanding that individual. There is no other expectation. If you find you’re having difficulty following what the person is saying, ask questions from a place of curiosity, as though you were a detective unraveling a mystery. The beauty of this approach is that answers to our concerns come to us more easily when we feel calmly listened to and understood.
For parents I encourage you to try the following exercise 2-3 times each week. Establish a time when you and your child/adolescent have time together to talk. The goal of this time together is for you to better understand your child. Find a place where you and your child will not be interrupted by other siblings. You can even give your time together a name, for example, your “special time” or your “alone time.” This is very meaningful for children. For spouses, committing to establishing listening times for each of you is excellent for decreasing the level of tension in your relationship and bringing you closer. The three golden rules are: no distractions; neither of you can talk about the relationship, kids, home or work; and neither partner can comment on what the other shared. In your own words, just let your partner know that you’re interested in understanding them better, and you appreciate them “sharing” with you. A walk together may provide the perfect time for this exercise. You’ll be surprised by what you learn about one another!
Remember, listening is an art and like anything else to be a good listener takes practice. When in doubt about whether you’re doing it well, just keep in mind that the word “listen” contains the same letters as the word “silent.”