The Art of Listening

The Art of Listening There are two main reasons people go to professional counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists. One reason is to solve a particular difficulty in their lives that is causing them emotional pain. The other is simply to have someone listen. People will pay thousands of dollars and commit hours of time spanning many years, just to have someone listen. Ironically, they may have a large nuclear and extended family, yet still have the experience of not being heard. So they hire a professional listener, and rightfully so.

Why is the experience of being heard so important? Because being heard is the experience of being validated. Being heard is being respected. Being heard is being empowered.

Being an effective listener is so difficult that there is a tremendous scarcity of competent people who can do it. And this is unfortunately why many people are confronted with the choice of becoming depressed or going to a professional. A responsible professional will look for opportunities to empower, teach, and encourage their client and the client's family to learn how to listen to each other. This is the best solution.

There are two exercises that I frequently do with couples who come to me for marriage counseling. One is called "mirror listening" ( or active listening) and the other "intentional dialogue." "Intentional dialogue" is an enhancement of "mirror listening." These two skills, mastered and used when appropriate, are the tools of a good listener. Many people can benefit from doing these exercises at home, so I will now give you the basic instructions. Even though they are taught and practiced in an artificial and formal way, ultimately they can be used as an integral part of casual day-to-day conversation.

1. Together with your partner select one person to begin as a message sender. When first leaning how to do this, the message sender should talk about neutral and simple subjects. The sender should begin a statement with "I" and talk only about himself/herself. The statements should be short and brief. For example, "I am really tired of all the rain we have been getting. I really look forward to some sunny days."

2. The listener, after having heard the message, attempts to repeat in his or her own words what they heard. The listener is not to agree, disagree, explain, or make any personal contribution to the statement that was heard. Just like a mirror that adds nothing to a reflection, the message should be accurately returned. For example, the listener responds, "What I heard you say was... Is that it?" The message sender simply acknowledges that the message was returned accurately, or if not, repeats it until it comes back as acceptable.

3. After about five or ten minutes, switch roles. As you get good at this, you can begin to tackle more delicate and sensitive issues.

1. After having mastered "mirror listening," try this. After the message sender has completed a topic of concern the listener can make the following statement, "After hearing what you have said it makes sense." This is validating your partner, not necessarily agreeing. With this statement you are respecting your partners right to have their own beliefs and feelings.

2. Next the listener can say, "After having heard all this, I imagine you must be feeling..." The listener guesses what the sender is feeling. Then the listener says, "Is that right?" The message sender either agrees or tells the listener what he or she is feeling.

Using these simple techniques can make all the difference in the world. At times, people just need to be heard. In my experience, both men and women desperately want their partners to understand them better. But men, when hearing what their wives are frustrated about, want to try and solve the problem, to fix it. This is how men are socialized, to fix things. On the other hand, even though their husbands mean well, their wives frequently just want to be heard, and that is the final solution.

When a person feels they are understood, they feel important, respected and loved. In turn, they respect and at times even love the one that is making the effort to listen and understand.

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