Monday, January 7, 2013

How to be a Better Listener

Good relationships are based on open, honest communication. A major part of that communication involves the ability to talk to your partner. Unfortunately, many of us are terrible listeners. When other people talk, we have the tendency to nod, make eye contact, and other signs we're apparently paying attention.

It's a learned response, though. Most of the time we're not really processing what the other person is saying. We're either thinking of what we're going to say next or off in our own little worlds imagining what we're goin g to cook for dinner that night.

The result- communication completely breaks down.

The first step to good communication is actually listening to what your partner is saying. We need to become active listeners. We have to process what the other person is saying by thinking about it. Fortunately it's a pretty easy skill to learn. We'll break it down into two parts.

Part One

When your partner says something, reword it an repeat it back to them. If they come home from work and say "Today was a rough day. I had to file a lot of TPS reports." 

You respond with "I understand today was difficult because you had a large number of TPS reports to file."

That's all there is to it. Practice this technique for a few days. When it begins to feel more natural, move on to step two.

Part Two

Now we're going to interpret our partner's emotional state in our repeated response. Instead of just rewording their statement, try to interpret their emotions along with the cause. For example:

"I just got off the phone with my sister. She's such a bitch. I can't believe she wore my yellow dress to that party."

You'd respond with "You feel angry your sister wore your dress."

This gives your partner a chance to correct you should you be wrong about the emotion or the cause of the emotion. This process assures you're really hearing what they're saying because it forces you to interpret. Interpretation requires a degree of deep thought. Once we really hear what our partner is saying, we can then work on other more advanced elements of interpersonal communication.

Give it a shot for a week or two. When communication breaks down in relationships, the best way to get it back is to learn the necessary skills. This is the first such skill. Get to work!

My Experiences

This is sort of a sidebar that has nothing to do with the actual practice... just the story of why I'm pretty good at this skill. It may be useful for those of you that have people in your life that don't seem to be very good at listening to others talk. ;-)

I always assumed all people used active listening. I didn't realize most people didn't until my late 20's. Yes, I can be a bit dense sometimes.

I always did it out of necessity. I have a memory disorder called auditory processing disorder, which is sort of like dyslexia for hearing instead of vision. My brain holds on to auditory information a fraction of a second too long, which interferes with new information coming in. It requires me to decipher every part of a conversation, which includes processing what was said to give it context, watching body language, and reading lips. If I can decipher what a person says, I'll have already thought about it.

Of course, there's a serious trade-off. Like a dyslexic trying to read a textbook, my ability to follow a conversation is seriously hampered by loud environments, soft or high-pitch talkers, or party atmospheres. I hate talking on phones, too.  Auditory information without visual cues can be close to impossible to understand and is very mentally exhausting.

If you know someone that seems to suffer from the same problems, Google "auditory processing disorder." There's some great information out there to help people understand why they seemingly can't "hear", even if they have perfect hearing.


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