I’m what you might call highly social. I relish friendly conversation, whether deep discussion with friends or breezy banter with strangers. I’m energized by social situations where connections spark and ideas fly. If I’m relaxed, I’ll strike up an easy exchange with almost anyone; if I’m excited or nervous, I’ll keep talking, only faster . . . and maybe louder. (Sorry.) I come by this enthusiastic extroversion honestly; it’s a trait handed down from my grandmother to my mother to me — and even on to my school-age daughter, who specifically requests a “nice chat” at the end of the day. It’s how we feel connected to other people.
By and large I would say being naturally loquacious is a positive trait: I consider myself friendly, approachable, and inclusive, and I make friends and acquaintances easily. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve grown to appreciate a type of communication that I’m not such a natural at: listening. As in, just listening. Not connecting, not noting things in common, not offering ideas or advice, not trying to console, not trying to convince, not filling uncomfortable silence, not diverting with jokes and anecdotes. Just listening and assuring the other person that he or she has been heard.
This kind of deep listening, I suspect, is hard for everyone. Introverts may have an easier time being still and hearing someone out, but that part about not offering advice . . . well, I’d argue it’s a challenge for us all. Yet could any interpersonal skill be more important? In friendships and partnerships, in families and communities — heck, in national and international politics — what could be more beneficial than listening deeply to one another?
A few years ago I signed up to be part of the “Befriender Ministry” at my church. The job sounds straightforward, if somewhat intense: to listen and support another person who is going through a difficult life experience, such as illness, loss, loneliness, or transition. But I soon discovered that this kind of intentional listening is significantly different than anything I’d ever experienced, either as a “casual” listener or as someone who — as we all do — needs to be listened to now and then.
In Befriender training, I was introduced to the following “listening skills,” as drawn from the classic counseling training manual The Helping Relationship: Process and Skills, by Lawrence M. Brammer. (And since editing our October 2016 Balance article by Zen teacher Ben Connelly, I have found it helpful to blend these skills with those used in the Buddhist practice of “compassionate listening.” Clearly, learning to listen well is spiritually significant!)
4 Listening Skills
Attending: Establish eye contact with your friend, indicating interest via a natural, relaxed posture. Use verbal statements that relate to your friend’s statements without interruptions, questions, or new topics.
Paraphrasing: Listen for the basic message in what your friend is saying and restate it simply in your own words. For example, if your friend says, “That’s just the way it always is — my father is always picking on me,” you could restate as, “Your dad seems to be on your back all the time.”
Reflecting feelings: Determine what emotions your friend is expressing by asking open-ended questions like, “Could you tell me more about . . . ?” or “What was that like for you?” Then reflect your understanding of those feelings back to your friend. (“It sounds like you felt very hurt when she said that to you.”)
Clarifying: Ask gently for more information, repetition, or illustration if you’re not sure you understand your friend’s meaning or feeling.
Obviously, these conversations aren’t your everyday chit-chat, and yes they do feel a bit unnatural. But practicing listening in this formal way has had undeniably positive effects on my daily interactions. For example, I now say things like, “Tell me more about that” when my kids share a concern (rather than straight-away offering my parenting wisdom); this gives them the opportunity to explore their own experiences more deeply. I’m also getting better at looking for the emotions behind other people’s words, which makes me more empathetic toward them even if their words are unpleasant or hurtful.
And I am learning to dial back my energy when I enter into certain types of conversations. Suppressing the impulse to offer my own perspective requires effort and a large dose of moment-to-moment self-awareness. I don’t always succeed, but I am gradually becoming a more skillful listener. Lately I have even found myself in more situations where people confide in me or share their worries. Maybe they sense that I would listen well. Or maybe they’re just happy to get a word in edgewise.
Jill Metzler Patton is an Experience Life senior editor.