What is it in our relationships that leaves us unhappy so often? We seem to cycle through the same problems over and over. We have the same arguments. We keep feeling misunderstood, ignored and sometimes even controlled. So many of us lose faith, hope and interest in each other. Anger so often morphs into contempt and our relationships slowly spiral down and die.
Human communication, even on a good day, is terrible. We're mostly misunderstanding each other much of the time. When we feel good, we don't care that much; and when we don't feel good, we care a whole lot.
– Stan Tatkin
Communicating Is Hearing Each Other
We're often told that we're supposed to communicate or work on our “communication” in our relationships. I don't think this communicates very much to any of us. As a therapist, I've concluded that what we really need in our relationships isn't so much “communication” as it is listening. I'd like to tell you why.
The most basic of all human needs is to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.
– Ralph Nichols
When we focus on “communication,” we tend to focus on talking. I need to communicate to you. You need to communicate to me. We're mostly listening to each other for the purpose of replying, so we can “communicate” back. This usually means we do a poor job of understanding and of appreciating and respecting each other. While many of us do need to “open up,” all of us need to do a better job of hearing what others are saying.
Take a moment to reflect on the difference between hearing and listening. There's a lot more to listening than having sounds register in your ears, recognizing the words they represent and then converting them into sentences you can simply take at face value. Listening, real listening, means that you try to put what another says into the bigger picture of life.
Mindsets for Listening
Your attitude matters. It not only colors all of your life, it colors how you listen. This is obvious in difficult relationships where contempt, dismissiveness and other angry tones are easy to hear. It's less obvious at other times. Are you actually intent and interested in listening to the other person? What do you expect to hear? How do you expect them to talk and behave? These affect the way you listen. They also affect how and what you think you hear. Interest implies that you're curious. Real curiosity shows on your face, in your tone and in how you talk about things.
Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.
– Stephen R. Covey
Interest also implies genuine love and concern. This is especially true for those we are close to, but it still applies in measure to others we don't know as well and even to strangers. If nothing else, it's good practice to treat everyone with an attitude of empathy and compassion as we interact. We tend to reap what we sow or attract more of what we practice and invest ourselves in. If you'd like better relationships with more interest in caring and concern for yourself, practice it with others every day, wherever you can.
I can't think of anything that screams you're not listening like appearing distracted. If you aren't squarely looking at someone, if you're looking around or experiencing a lot of “squirrel moments” with little things going on around you, you clearly aren't listening. You know when this is happening to you and others know when it's happening to them.
You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.
– M. Scott Peck
The way you're not paying attention can have different meanings to people. Do you appear bored? Are you preoccupied? Does it look like you just aren't taking the time or that you just don't care? You've experienced all of these and many others. If you aren't ready to focus and be curious, don't pretend you're having a conversation. If you're barely engaging, you're hurting not helping your relationship. If you're legitimately having a bad day and struggling to stay on track, be honest about it, ask to talk later and then follow through. That will ultimately mean a lot more.
If you don't have enough distractions going on around you naturally, you've probably brought your own with you. These days we seldom go anywhere for awfully long without electronics. We take our phones everywhere and often have a hard time leaving them alone. Recent studies have shown that simply having a phone out, sitting on a table untouched, impacts the quality of conversation. Keeping your phone out of sight and muted helps. This might not always be practical, but if you're in a serious conversation, keep it in mind.
Many of us have a little trouble with our everyday conversational facial expression. Mike Foster calls this our “Resting Jerk Face,” since that's how he describes his own. It's a face that isn't really happy or sad and tends to look a little bored or is just not reacting much to what's being said. You might want to get some feedback from friends about how you tend to look and come across, if you suspect something like this affects you. This obviously affects how “paying attention” looks for you even if you don't mean it and aren't aware of it.
Finally, one very simple way we show that we're paying attention is through “minimal encouragers.” These are tiny expressions like “OK,” “Yes,” “And,” “Uh-huh” or “Mmm.” We say them when someone finishes a sentence and we'd like them to continue or we're letting them know we're still tuned in. We rarely notice we do them or that others are responding to us with them, but they are a very important way of keeping a conversation going with the other person talking in an almost uninterrupted way.
The Art of the Question
Questions show interest, that you're paying attention and that you're trying to understand. Questions come in several flavors, they aren't all equal in effectiveness and some can be harmful if used too often or in the wrong way.
“Closed” questions are simple yes/no questions or questions that invite very short one or two word answers. They're usually used to gather “data.” Sometimes they're used to make a point, and we'd then often call them “rhetorical,” because the answer is an easily expected one. Closed questions can help clarify what's been said or some key part of the context of a situation, but they seldom help move a conversation along. Too many closed questions can make a conversation feel like an interrogation and shut it down.
“Open ended” questions invite someone to tell you more about something. “What happened next?,” “How did you do that?” and even “Well, what did they say?” are open ended. The goal of open ended questions is to help someone tell their story in their own words. They may help to focus on different aspects or parts, but they don't have simple short answers, unless someone is being uncooperative or doesn't want to talk. We've all been on one end or the other of “How was your day?” “Fine.” Perhaps you grew up with “What did you learn at school today?” “Nothing.” If you're asking open ended questions and getting minimal responses, it's either a comment on your relationship in general, or it's about someone not wanting to engage right now.
The questions you ask are more important than the things you could ever say.
– Thomas Freese
Leading questions are seldom helpful in a conversation. They often assume something that isn't necessarily true, or they try to back the other person into a corner and force them to give an answer. They don't demonstrate empathy or understanding. They emphasize your point of view in some way. Here are a few examples “Were you out at that bar again?,” “Did you talk to your boss about what we talked about?,” “Were you really busy when you said you couldn't come over?”
Leading questions can easily shade into “loaded questions.” Leading and loaded questions often come with a challenging or negative tone. Consider being asked: “Was it really worth it?” or “What were you thinking?” Whether they're leading or loaded doesn't really matter as much as realizing they hurt your conversation and your connection with the other person.
SOQ's (“socks”) are “solution oriented questions.” These also emphasize your point of view and are basically advice disguised as a question. They're a particular kind of leading or loaded question. “How about you call her and tell her what you really think?” is a SOQ, so are “What if you start looking for another job?,” and “Could you do your walks together every morning?”
As mentioned with closed questions, too many questions can shut a conversation down. There needs to be a balance between asking and sharing on your part. Very briefly mentioning your own experience or feelings also shows you're trying to understand and connect. Avoid “one upping” or “topping” the other person with your stories but do show that you have some concept of where they're coming from without implying that your story is bigger, badder or better than theirs. If there's reason to note your experience pales in comparison or that you're having a hard time really grasping what it's like to be in their shoes, say so. Part of staying connected with someone going through a crazy rough patch, is letting them know you don't really understand it all and that you care and want to hang in there with them, that you support them and that you feel for them.
Are You on Track?
Another way to show that you're listening, understanding and following along is by paraphrasing back to the other person key parts of what they've told you. If you aren't sure you have it right, you can sound unsure and make it sound more like a question. The other person can them correct your understanding. Paraphrasing is a basic “reflection” skill. It's a way to reflect back to the other person what they've said. Sometimes this can help them see things in a different light or how it sounds to someone else; but it's main purpose, and your reason for doing it, is to show them you're listening, trying to understand and connect.
As a conversation goes on for a while and starts to cover a bit of territory; things like what happened when, who was part, how it felt, what someone made of it then versus now and so on are discussed. It helps to summarize chunks of this as it grows. This helps you and the other person pull the parts together into a snapshot for perspective. It also helps you, again, demonstrate you're following and have some understanding. Sometimes, it also helps the other person to put it in perspective, too. That's not usually your point, but it can be a bonus.
Summarizing can also help wrap part of a conversation up and transition to some other facet. I've often found it helpful to do it so we can focus on feelings or meaning. Other times it's been useful to transition to something like, “Well, where do you go from here?” At first glance, that might sound like a leading question, and to be honest, it is. You still might want to go there because people can get stuck and need a nudge (or a push) to focus on doing something rather than repeatedly replaying a story. You need to be careful though. If someone is still really in the middle of something, they might not be ready yet. If they say they don't know, you might want to leave it there. If this is the tenth time you've heard it, you might want to point that out.
Whenever you're paraphrasing or summarizing, you want to be tentative about your understanding. Leave room for the other person to correct or update your understanding particularly when thoughts, feelings, meanings and motivations play a role. You're always trying to see things first through their eyes. Save your point of view for later, if ever.
I mentioned “reflecting skills” when I talked about paraphrasing. There is a richer aspect to reflecting when it comes to feelings and meanings. People often have a little trouble identifying how they feel when they're in the middle of something. The questions you're working with are: “What feelings are 'reflected' by the words?” and “What does all this 'really' mean?”
We often use words that might hint at a feeling but aren't feelings themselves. If I say I felt “betrayed,” “abandoned,” or “unsafe,” I haven't really named a feeling. I might tell you any one of those and actually feel sad, angry or scared. I might feel whichever way I do to dramatically different degrees or intensities. I will also feel that way in the middle of some context. I have my story in this moment embedded in the middle of the story of my whole life. What does this mean to me in terms of how I think about it, what I might be willing to do about it and what my future looks like from here?
If you can reflect back how any of those sound to you from what I've said or can even briefly comment on what it might mean to people you've known, you can invite a deeper conversation and create a richer connection. You can really help someone feel heard and known. Checking out how what they say ties back to other things they've said or that you've experienced with them can play a role. It might mean you help them express, clarify or define their feelings and what things might mean at the moment. This can sound like, “It seems like you might feel _______.” or “Does that mean ________?” It's you trying to identify with them at a deeper more meaningful level.
Validation involves letting someone know you recognize their experience is “valid” or “real.” It's letting them know that what they feel makes some kind of sense given the situation. This is not a matter of you being judgmental about it. It's about you genuinely letting them know, in the way that you respond, that you understand something about their situation. You don't necessarily “agree” with them in the sense that this is how you'd feel or respond. You don't necessarily like their feelings, and you don't necessarily like their behavior, but you do recognize their humanity and the “humanness” of their response.
Remember, validation is recognizing someone in their situation, not agreeing with them or “celebrating” it. You get where they're at, whether or not you think it's ultimately “good” or “bad.” Please keep in might that your attempts to validate someone don't automatically mean they instantly feel validated. Someone is validated when they actually feel that way, not because you said something. It happens because you finally made a connection.
Affirmation is praising someone's accomplishment or success. It's acknowledging they handled something well, did something noteworthy or made valuable progress. It's also expressing your belief in them and sharing that you genuinely value them as a person.
Unlike validation, when you affirm someone you are saying you agree with or value what they've done or tried to do. You're saying they did something “good” and that you like it. This is not something to be done lightly or in an offhand way. This is a sensitive area for many of us. If you aren't genuine or you're going through the motions and don't really mean it, you'll created problems for your relationship. We all need affirmation. We all need people who believe in us. Among other things, genuine affirmation says, “I like you.” or, at the very least, “I like something about you.”
There is an everyday version of affirmation we all need to practice more. It's affirming the people around us for the things they do to make our lives better and sometimes for simply putting up with us. Whether it's making coffee in the morning, taking out the trash or folding the laundry, expressing thanks and gratitude for it is some of the most valuable communication you will ever do. What does this have to do with listening? We communicate every day in every moment with the actions that we take. Do your actions express caring and commitment? Do you act like you're oblivious or entitled? We'll come back to listening to behavior shortly.
The Nonverbal Elements
Communication doesn't happen simply by hearing words. Words generally come as a package deal. You get the words, tone of voice, body language and as a special added bonus, facial expressions for one low, low price. It might not feel like such a deal sometimes. We notice tone of voice, but often don't consciously notice facial expressions or body language. That definitely doesn't mean that we don't experience them or react to them. We most certainly do. It gets harder and harder to be aware of the non-verbal elements of a conversation the more heated it becomes.
It can sometimes be helpful to minimize the non-verbal elements by writing letters or texting. Sometimes talking on the phone can help. Although you still have tone of voice you don't have faces and body language to react to. Without these, you will have a harder than usual time with accurately knowing what the other person really means though. You will have to be extra careful with the language you use, and you should be fairly confident of the willingness you each have to check out what the other really means without jumping to conclusions. In other words, you need a decent level of trust and readiness to give and accept corrections and apologies.
The non-verbal elements of our communication not only affect what we “receive” from the other person and what we “send” to them, it affects how we communicate internally with ourselves. Your communication isn't just the words that come out of your head with a little bit of extra body stuff for decoration. Your facial expressions and body positions dramatically affect your mood and the level of fight or flight response you're experiencing. You need to be aware of your non-verbals as well as the other person's.
What Isn't Being Said?
In any conversation, what's being left out? Is there something being avoided or talked around? Are you, or is the other person, beating around the bush? Does it feel like something else is really the problem? Are you having a hard time figuring out what the point is? You may need to gently or tactfully find a way to ask about it.
The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said.
– Peter Drucker
If your relationship has been difficult and things have routinely gotten out of hand, it may take a while before you can successfully do this. You will likely have to build a new reputation for patience and understanding first. To talk about more delicate things, you first have to have a healthy enough or strong enough relationship. You'll need to be seen as trustworthy or “safe” enough to talk about some things with. Practicing the thing I've been talking about here is a way to get started.
Listening to Behavior
Actions always speak louder than words. We always interpret what people say based on the things they've done, especially the things they've done repeatedly. Past behavior is always your best predictor of future behavior. You need to be more consciously aware of this. Your communication is heard through this lens and you listen to others the same way.
Here are a few things to ponder from time to time. What does someone's ongoing attitude mean? What tends to happen when you're near each other? How does it depend on where you are, who else is around and what time or day it is? Is passive aggressive behavior a problem? What's the atmosphere like most of the time? Do you feel like you're walking on eggshells?
Interpreting behavior patterns isn't easy and you're prone to creating stories for other people's behavior that makes them look bad and you look better. You judge yourself by your intentions and others by what actually happens.
You need to check out what you think other people's behavior communicates as carefully and as non-judgmentally as possible. Try to stick to the facts in plain simple language. Colorful language, blaming or telling people what they were thinking or what they must have meant, will not help at all. The following formula can help: “When ________ happens, I feel/wonder ________. I'd like to understand it.” Later you might use: “In the future, when ________ happens, I'd like you to ________.” One of the things you might like to have happen is talking about it.
Problem Solving and Fixing Things
Fixing things is for mechanics and repairmen. Life and relationships are not fix-it things. Both have more in common with gardening. You create the right conditions with the soil, water, light and a little fertilizer and things can get healthy and grow pretty much on their own. You can to some extent help someone else do this, but for the most part they have to do their own work. The best you can do is take care of your part and keep the toxic stuff to an absolute minimum. You becoming a better you is a great fertilizer for any relationship. You can also provide a little sunshine and water most of the time. Occasionally, by listening well, you can help the other person work their own soil.
We can be easily tempted to give others advice or demand they do certain things to “fix the problem.” This makes sense to us, but we never have an inside perspective on someone else's problems. If anything were as easy to fix as we think it is, it would have already happened. People are stuck for entangled reasons deeply rooted in the messy process of their life. You insult the other person when you offer obvious and simplistic advice. If you really want to help someone change, listen, and listen often. People need to be heard and valued in order to say things out loud and slowly sort them out for themselves. Advice is a way that we minimize things and try to make them go away. It also removes any responsibility we have for the problem and for actually helping where we can.
Problem solving is much different than “fixing.” When we problem solve, we first hear each other out, and then we collaborate in a respectful way. We talk about possibilities and options. We might plan a test, trial run or experiment to see how our ideas work. We learn from the process. It's vital that we cooperate with each other and actually agree on things. If we're bullying or demanding the other person do it a certain way, we aren't problem solving. Problem solving depends on our willingness to listen and on not having to be right or on having to have the last word.
Assumptions and Interpretations
Some of us make a habit of making assumptions or interpreting others' thoughts and motives and then fail to check things out. We can also get stuck in our thoughts being Reality or The Truth. This can be combined with having a problem with being wrong or having to be right, leading you to defend your position at all costs and then making things much worse. A habit or tendency to jump to conclusions is also built on making interpretations that tend to rely on negative assumptions.
An antidote to problems with assumptions and interpretations is to be more humble and tentative about what you think is going on and what it might mean. If you find your feelings rising sharply, it's probably time to check out your story. Left unchecked and uncorrected, this habit makes it easy for you to feel contempt for the other person or to develop safety and trust problems with them.
Letting Agendas Go
The primary goal of becoming a better listener is trying to learn about and understand another person. You'd like to see the world through their eyes better. This can go a long way towards reducing friction and increasing everyone's happiness. Why they do what they do will be less mysterious. You'll even learn to understand yourself better.
One of the things that will almost completely block your way though is your commitment to your own personal agendas. The more you have to have something your way, be right or in control, the harder it is to hear the other person and actually know them. They aren't going to be terribly open with you when you aren't listening, and you won't cooperate or collaborate on life around each other. If your stuff is more important than getting to know the needs and wants of another, you'll stay disconnected. Practice learning to understand first. Be assertive second.
Silence is a part of listening, too. It's important to let the other person have time to think, reflect and process, especially if they're introverted or working their way through something complicated or emotionally tough. Practice being OK with moments of silence. If you're feeling awkward after what feels like a few too many quiet moments, it's OK to say so.
Never miss a good chance to shut up.
– Will Rogers
It's OK to say you don't know what to say or to tell someone how overwhelmed you feel at some point. You just don't have to have “answers” or something useful to say every moment. Remember, most of the time it's just important for you to be there and to be listening.
People often just need you to hear them and to be the one other person on this planet that knows what they're going through. Sometimes people just need the opportunity to say things out loud, to get them more or less out of their head, so they're out in front of them to be seen, put together and then handled. They need to talk their own way through them. You don't need to add a lot to it. Your part is just helping them to keep going. They're putting their own pieces together.
Although I'm stressing the need to listen here, you do need to communicate your own thoughts and feelings and your own wants and needs and listen to what comes back. You just don't have to be in a rush to do your side. Hearing someone out, listening fully first, gives you a much better opportunity to be heard in the long run. If you're really willing to listen, nearly everyone is willing to listen back. You'll have the best opportunity to be heard by waiting a little bit.
When you are more fully expressing yourself, you need to maintain an attitude of respect, empathy and general politeness. Use care with your language. Even if the other person has not been their best, watch your tone and your expressions. Remember, your goal at this point is to be heard. If you've made it this far, don't blow it by falling into old habits.
If it's slow going at first, it's OK. You may have to build or rebuild your reputation for listening and being safe to be with when emotions run high and challenging things get said. This can take a while, depending on your history and the other person's history, especially with family and past relationships. Everyone has baggage. Moving past it, developing trust and building new habits and expectations takes time. Also remember, you will stumble, have bad days and have to pick yourself back up again. Being open, honest and genuinely apologetic will help. You need to learn to be authentic and transparent about yourself and where you're really at. You have to do this with yourself as much as you have to grow it into your relationships.
You will have to practice assertiveness and maintaining boundaries while you practice listening. Even though you want to know and understand someone, you can't go on letting them have their way at your expense. They need to listen, too. All relationships involve give and take. You have limits. You practice respecting other's reasonable limits and you should be able to expect the same in return. By all means, listen when you talk about your boundaries, about not being OK with some behavior. Hearing them out and then having them hear you out about your boundaries is a process, too. You have to assert your reasonable rights and expectations for a relationship to be healthy. Unfortunately, some people refuse to respect others and that leaves you in a place that will require you to make difficult choices from time to time.
How to Start Practicing
We have covered a number of the different aspects of listening and communicating, mainly in the context of relationships. You may feel a little overwhelmed and not really know where to start at this point. You can really start almost anywhere, assuming you have the desire to actually listen. If you are curious and want to understand, you have the attitude to get started.
To move forward, simply pick one of the areas and focus on it whenever you have the opportunity. Keep practicing it over the next few days or weeks until it starts becoming more natural. If another aspect comes to mind in a conversation, go ahead and practice it while you've remembered it, too. Expect to miss a few opportunities when you're getting started.
Old habits can make it hard to remember your intention right away. If you find yourself remembering your intention after the fact, you are still making progress. Your honest intention will keep bringing it to mind sooner if you keep going. It can take a few misses before your intention happens on time. Having a reminder in your pocket or a periodic notification on your phone might help keep it primed in your memory better.
Once you have made enough progress with one aspect, pick another one, rinse and repeat. Honing you listening skills is a lifelong pastime. I hope you find it enlightening, rewarding and most of all enjoyable.
Points to Remember
By focusing on listening better, we can go a long way toward repairing our relationships. We can make them stronger and be better equipped to find new ones. We are more attractive and more valuable to ourselves and others when we're good listeners. It starts with your attitude. Are you interested? Are you paying attention? Do you honestly care about the other person's feelings? Are you compassionate? Going on from there, do you help them express themselves? Do you show them that you follow and understand what they're saying? Do you talk about your own feelings, interests and experience in a balanced, friendly way? Lastly, do you assert your boundaries and stand your ground when you need to in a respectful way? Take some time to practice every day and watch your world change.
Your happiness awaits.