“You’re not listening to me!!” So often, people that I talk to both professionally and personally share that complaint about some person with whom they have a significant relationship, whether it is a spouse, friend, parent, or partner. And usually, the other person that the complaint is about feels that they ARE doing a good job of listening. Clearly there is a disconnect here, so I wanted to clarify what constitutes poor listening, good listening, and then a model for being an effective listener.
It’s essential to understand the concept of empathy for anyone that wants to become a more effective listener. Empathy is truly understanding the other person’s point of view and the other person’s feelings about a situation. It’s really climbing right into their shoes and seeing the thing they are talking about from their standpoint. This doesn't mean that you have to agree with everything the person is saying or get yourself to change your beliefs to match those of the speaker. It is simply understanding completely the other person's veiwpoint.
Empathy is a skill that most people have to develop, but just having empathy isn’t enough to let the other person know that you really understand what they have said. You still have to express this empathy in an effective manner. But before I discuss how to listen effectively with empathy, I'll discuss a few common mistakes many people make when trying to listen to another person.
One complaint I frequently hear from those wanting someone in their life to be a better listener is that after they’ve spoken, the other person says something like, “I get it” or “I understand”. That’s NOT expressing empathy or understanding. The other person really has no idea from that whether they were heard and understood or not. We could listen to a lecture on quantum physics, not comprehend too much of it, and still say “I get it” or "I understand" at the end!
Another frequent complaint I hear, and more often it seems that men are accused of doing this, is that after the speaker has expressed their thoughts and feelings on a situation, the listener then immediately jumps in with a solution to the “problem” or a way fixing whatever it was the speaker was talking about. This also isn’t very effective listening. Usually the speaker hasn’t asked for help in generating a solution, they just want someone to listen and understand them. And in my work with couples, it isn’t often that the listener actually comes up with a fix for the situation that the talker hadn’t already thought of or was incapable of generating themselves.
Lastly, in discussing what doesn’t work, saying something like “I’m sorry” isn‘t that helpful. This is expressing sympathy, not empathy, and there are times for expressing sympathy where “I’m sorry” is a kind thing to say. But it really doesn’t work when, for example, the talker has discussed for several minutes a frustrating work situation that occurred that day and the listener simply says “I’m sorry” in response. That response would connote some caring about the person’s situation, which is nice, but it doesn’t express any deep or helpful understanding of it that results in the talker truly feeling heard.
I believe that the listener often genuinely wants to be helpful to the speaker or really wants to let the person know that they care and understand, but they just don’t know how to go about that. Remember, the goal of effective listening and empathy is to deeply understand the situation and feelings from the other person’s perspective, not to fix it (unless they specifically ask for possible solutions) or to essentially end the conversation with an “I get it” or “I’m sorry”.
The basic model to follow is to paraphrase the content of what you are hearing and to also say something about the emotion the speaker is likely feeling or has even expressed that they are feeling. For example, the speaker says, “Bill is driving me crazy at work. We’re supposed to be doing the same customer service all day, and half the time he is on his phone texting people or playing games. He always takes a lunch and comes back late, and I end up sitting there all day doing my work AND his work. And the boss even gives me more to do because she knows I’ll get it done and he won’t!!!”
Again, don’t say “I understand” or “I’m sorry” and essentially end the conversation, and don’t try to fix this initially. This is the kind of comment that stereotypically sucks more guys into immediately offering solutions about how to handle Bill, what to tell the boss, how to quit taking on the extra work etc., but don’t offer solutions unless specifically asked.
The empathetic response is, “Dang, that’s got to be incredibly frustrating (so here, you’ve hit the emotion part……now the content), so you’re cranking away all day at work killing yourself to get everything done and you get even more dumped on you, and Bill is just sitting there messing around not doing much of anything!!” (notice with the content part of the empathetic response, don’t parrot back exactly word for word what the person said, pull it together in a cogent summary……doing that really let’s the other person know that you understand).
So if you’re the listener, this is the model for effective listening. If you need someone in your life to be a more empathic listener, that person may need a little coaching from you so that they listen more in the manner I just described. As I said, I believe most people do want to be helpful and do care, so you can clearly tell them that you appreciate their effort to understand when they say “I understand” or their effort to help you by offering solutions to the “problem”, but then go on to describe exactly what would be helpful and effective listening for you.........or have them read this article!