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Shhhh...Just Listen

by Julie Fischer, MSE, Licensed Professional Counselor

What can you say to get through to your child? How can you have more meaningful discussions with your partner? What magic words can you utter to improve your relationship with that "difficult" co-worker? The answer may not be talking at all, but listening! Whether you are interacting with your child, your partner or your co-worker, using the Active Listening Process promotes effective communication, increases the level of understanding and creates an atmosphere of mutual respect within any relationship.

The process of active listening involves three main components: 1) Mirroring 2) Validating and 3) Empathizing. It is a process that is not used in every day communication, but can be a very effective way to communicate about difficult issues.

Mirroring is simply paraphrasing what the other person has said to you, or reflecting back the content of the message you just heard. For example, your child comes home from school with a whole list of stressful and unexpected events that transpired throughout the day. Mirroring might simply be saying "It sounds like you've had a really difficult day at school!"

Validating is setting aside your own frame of reference and validating the speaker's thoughts. Without necessarily agreeing with the speaker's point of view, you are accepting the logic, validity and worth of the speaker's thoughts. In other words, you are indicating to the speaker that what she/he is saying makes some sense. Phrases such as "I can understand that", "That makes sense", "It's important for you" and "You have a point", can help you validate the speaker's thoughts.

Continuing the example from above, your child finishes describing her horrible day at school and adds an emphatic, "And I have so much homework! I hate homework! It will take me a million hours to finish all this stuff before tomorrow, and I'll NEVER have ANY time to spend with my best friend!"

Now, you are sure from past experience that your child will be done with her homework in less than an hour. In addition, your daughter's best friend is at your house so much she practically lives with you. While you could launch into a mini-lecture, stating all of the obvious truths above, this will no doubt result in a daughter who has not only had a difficult day at school and is stressed out about homework, but also upset at her parent who doesn't understand how she feels. In order to validate what your daughter is saying, the trick is for you to save the mini-lecture, jump into your daughter's shoes and simply make a statement such as "It's important for you have time with your best friend, and having a lot of homework can certainly get in the way of that."

Once the speaker feels heard and understood, the next important step of the active listening process is empathizing. Empathizing is recognizing the feelings of the speaker, and reflecting those feelings back to the speaker. In a sense, you are using your heart to connect with the speaker, on a feeling level. Some phrases to help you accomplish this might be, "It looks like you feel...", "It sounds like you feel...", "I can sense that you are experiencing..."

To empathize with your daughter's difficult day and substantial homework load, you need to get beyond the content and listen for your daughter's underlying feelings. An appropriate empathetic response might be, "It sounds like you are really feeling upset about your difficult day, and stressed out about all the homework you have to complete on top of it."

All three components are simple concepts and relatively easy to learn, but often times difficult to implement. This is because of our tendency to stay locked into our own positions and viewpoints and never really try to "hear" the other person's story. Rather than really focusing on what the other person is saying to us during an important discussion, most of us tend to be preparing our response while the other person is talking, anxiously awaiting our turn to talk. Effective active listening means putting your own frame of reference on hold for the time being, and focusing all your attention on the speaker and her or his words, mindset and feelings.

The next time a discussion is "going nowhere", or worse yet, heading toward escalation and seemingly irresolvable conflict, try implementing the Active Listening process. Being listened to and understood can be a very healing process for both the speaker and listener and contributes to each person's holistic health and well-being.

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