Intentional and empathic listening is the best way to understand other people, what they’re feeling, and what motivates them. It’s the key to resolving conflicts and a prerequisite to deep and mutually respectful, compassionate relationships in life.
And yet, listening and truly hearing what another person is trying to communicate is often a big challenge in everyday life. Why is this? Here are a few of the most common barriers to well-attuned listening.
- Sometimes we’re preoccupied with our own lives and emotions and don’t have the capacity to shift our focus to someone else’s topics right now. Maybe we’re thinking about a personal problem we want to solve, or an intense interaction we just had, or an upcoming event.
Recommendation: Either decide consciously to put your own topics on the back burner for now, or if that doesn’t feel possible, tell the other person that you just don’t have the capacity right now. Maybe you can make a date to follow up on this conversation when your mind is freer.
- Sometimes we feel strong, emotional obstacles to opening ourselves to another person, which makes compassionate and generous listening impossible. Maybe we have a difficult relationship with that person and a long history of unresolved conflicts.
Recommendation: Explain transparently and honestly that your strong emotions are standing in the way of your listening openly. Describe what you would need to happen first in order to be able to listen to the other person. Consider reaching out to a coach, therapist, or mediator for support, either alone or with the other person.
- In our fast-paced and technological world there are many distractions, such as omnipresent cell phones and noise, that can make it hard for us to concentrate on another person for an extended period of time.
Recommendation: If the speaker and the relationship are important to you, make a conscious effort to avoid unnecessary distractions for an agreed-upon period of time. The other person is bound to feel better heard, seen, and understood.
- We don’t tend to live in a culture of open and honest feedback on the meta-level of our communication. That means that people don’t usually tell us, when we’re in the listening role, whether our responses are helpful or not. And so, how are we supposed to know whether we’re being a good listener by giving advice or sharing our own similar story?
Recommendation: Ask the speaker whether s/he feels heard and understood. Ask whether your story or advice was useful. Take a course on communication in everyday life. Read self-help books about becoming a better listener.
Here is a lovely quotation from “The Listening Book“ by Ticic, Kushner, and Ecker:
“What explains the rarity of high-quality listening? Perhaps the cause of its rarity can be found in the very essence of such listening: You park yourself in silence, you forget about time, you forget about yourself, and you give the entire attention of your mind and heart to the other person. In other words, such listening is done from a state of mind that is relatively egoless. Could the unfamiliarity of that stance be why it’s rare? If so, then cultivating not only the skills but also, more fundamentally, the capacity for that stance of true listening will be a major gain for the listener, a gain that could be viewed as spiritual growth.”
Elise Kushner, BA, HP Psychotherapy is a certified trainer of Coherence Coaching and Coherence Therapy and co-author of The Listening Book: How to Create a World of Rich Connections and Surprising Growth by Actually Hearing Each Other.