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A Lifestyle Lesson in Listening

I’ve had the privilege of listening to hundreds of people tell stories and have conversations amongst themselves – counseling couples, leading groups, guiding student discussions, and observing family and friends converse.

It’s amazing how often two people trying to connect have two entirely different conversations.

Miscommunications, misunderstandings, and mistakes are usually the result of something that was said with one intent and heard with another.

This happens for many reasons.

Many times the person speaking and the person listening aren’t in the same “head space.” One could be coming home from work while the other has been lying around the house for hours. One person might be calm and collected while the other is activated and angry.

And sometimes it’s just as simple as being in our own heads too much, trying to figure out what to say next – so much so that we don’t even really process what was just said to us in return.

We’ve all been in these situations, and sometimes they lead to minor mishaps that are quickly remedied through clarification and kindness. Other times, this kind of pattern leads to days’ worth of resentment, stonewalling, and silence.

What I’ve observed through my work as a professional counselor and lifestyle coach is that these crossed wires are totally preventable. In fact, a large portion of my clinical training involved learning to listen using three skills: observation, summaries, and reflections of feeling.

By observing nonverbal language, learning to parrot back quick snippets of what has been said, and honing your ability to identify emotion, you too can avoid these common communication pitfalls.

Here’s how to do that.

SEE: Notice what is being felt.

When you’re having a meaningful conversation, focus less on what is said and instead focus more on how it is said. This requires you to first notice what is being felt.

Notice the other person’s nonverbal communication.

Are their shoulders slouched and relaxed? Or is their spine stiff as a board?

Are they making eye contact or avoiding it?

How’s the tone of their voice? Does their tone rise at the end of a sentence as though they are questions? Or are they conveying certainty?

A pro-level move is to also notice how you’re feeling inside.

Because our nervous systems sync up when we connect to others, what’s going on in your body is likely an indication of what’s going on in theirs.

As you start to notice the nonverbal communication as well as the verbal communication, you’ll have more information about what is meant by the person, not just what is being said.

STOP: Avoid rehearsing what you’ll say next.

Many times without noticing it, when the other person is talking, we’re in our minds thinking about the next thing to say. We might feel nervous or preoccupied, but whatever the case, when we think about our next response, we’re not giving ourselves the opportunity to truly process what’s being said to us at that particular moment.

When you catch yourself wanting to cut the other person off or become distracted by the next thought you want to share, take a breath. Avoid having your mind outrun the conversation that is happening between your bodies.

Simply by stopping this pattern, you’ll have more space to hear what’s actually happening.

START: Summarize and reflect feelings.

My students never believe me when I tell them this, but I’m going to say it to you anyway:

Summaries and reflections of feeling are the most powerful communication tool in our kit.

When we summarize what someone has said and repeat it back to them, it can feel a little awkward and obvious. But it’s really not.

When you summarize what you just heard, you’re actually signaling to the other person that you not only heard them, but that you are resonating with them – you’re following along. This promotes a sense of “feeling felt,” which makes nervous systems feel safe. When others feel safe around you, they’re more likely to speak clearly, open up, and connect in meaningful ways.

As you summarize, add feeling words. They don’t need to be complicated. In fact, when I was just starting out, my professor suggested I stick to just four categories: sad, mad, glad, scared.

That situation made you mad.

You’re feeling a little scared about dropping your dog off at day care.

You’re glad that your mom is alright.

It seems like you’re sad about missing the game.

By adding a feeling word, you’re not only promoting connection between you and the other person, but you’re also – quite literally – helping that person connect with themselves. Because they’re feeling themselves reflected back to them, they’re more likely to correct themselves, clarify, or keep moving along because they know you’re listening.

Once you summarize and reflect a feeling, be sure to then articulate yourself back as clearly as possible. Listening is an important skill! But it’s also important to make space for ourselves in everyday conversations too.

MAGIC MANTRA: I listen with my heart.

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