We all think we are able to listen but are we really able to hear and demonstrate to the person speaking that we really are hearing what they’re saying?
Students studying psychology on the road to becoming psychotherapists spend a good amount of time learning listening skills. The approach is called “Reflective Listening” or “Active Listening.” Even though this comes from the fields of counseling and psychotherapy, good conversationalists have practiced a form of this since time immemorial. These techniques can be very useful in learning the art of interpersonal skills and incredibly useful in many everyday situations. Reflective listening is to really listen to what others say and then to reflect back what they are saying. Reflective listening shows people that you 1. are listening and 2. are empathetic.
The listener is only listening and trying to understand what the other person is saying from their point of view. The listener isn’t trying to solve anybody’s problem, give advice or give an opinion. The listener isn’t asking “How can I solve this person’s problems” or even “How do I feel about this person?” The listener is putting all of their energy into trying to understand exactly how this person sees themselves and their situation. The listener’s goal is simply to understand what the other person is saying or how they feel.
The listener’s desire and effort to understand the recipient and the recipient’s internal frame of reference rather than to interpret the recipient through an external point of view, such as a theory; a set of standards, or the listener’s preferences. The listener expresses this empathy verbally and non-verbally through language such as “I follow you,” “I’m with you” or “I understand.” The key is to listen and to understand through the recipients own perspective. A person who sees that a listener is really trying to understand his or her meanings will be willing to explore his or her problems and self more deeply. Empathy is surprisingly difficult to achieve. We all have a strong tendency to advise, tell, agree, or disagree from our own point of view.
Closely related to empathy. Acceptance means having respect for a person for simply being a person. Acceptance should be as unconditional as possible. This means that the listener should avoid expressing agreement or disagreement with what the other person says. This attitude encourages the other person to be less defensive and to explore aspects of self and the situation that they might otherwise keep hidden
Refers to openness, frankness, and genuineness on the part of the listener. Candor on the part of the listener tends to evoke candor in the speaker. When one person comes out from behind a facade, the other is more likely to as well.
Refers to focusing on specifics rather than vague generalities. For example, instead of a agreeing with a statement like “You just can’t trust a manager. They care about themselves first and you second”, you can ask what specific incident the speaker is referring to.
Check understanding – paraphrasing. Repeat back to the speaker what they said. Don’t repeat but paraphrase what you heard. Go a step further by asking a question for clarification or elaboration. We often miss the meaning of what someone said. If done well, this is actually an opportunity for the speaker to further elaborate. It’s hard to change your perspective but this is not a test of your listening skills. If you misunderstood, don’t be hurt. You’ve provided an opportunity for the speaker to further elaborate and correct. That proves that this technique does truly clarify communication. For most of us, it takes a lot of practice before we become natural and effective at reflecting. Our first few efforts may sound forced, phony, patronizing, and even moronic. Once you practice for awhile, you may find out that you’re very good at it. It takes a lot of the burden off of your shoulders as well.
Suspension of Disbelief
There is something in movie making called suspension of disbelief. In normal life, we view everything with a skeptical eye, it either makes sense or it doesn’t. Of course some things are real. The color of the sky, the texture of a table, a stomachache. In a movie, by its very nature, the filmmakers are asking the audience to suspend its natural disbelief. For two hours, they must be able to suspend the belief that an asteroid is not actually hurtling toward the earth, about to end life as we know it unless Bruce Willis is able to harness a rocket and stop it. Hard to believe? Well, yeah. But, when you enter a movie theater, you’re prepared to suspend your disbelief. It’s automatic. You know it’s a movie but it seems real. You believe it for that two hours, your heart races, you have feelings about the characters yet, when you walk out of the movie and someone says, “What’s going on?” you don’t say “An asteroid was about to hit the earth but Bruce Willis saved us.
As a good listener, we do the same thing. No matter how much we agree or disagree with someone, we must suspend our natural inclination to question their logic and to try to understand their logic and their thinking. A good listener puts away his or her natural skepticism and enters the head of the other person. We don’t do it so that we can finally be won over to their way of thinking. That’s not necessary. We do it only to find a way to engage them on their home turf.