Does any of this sound familiar?
- “You’re not listening to me!”
- “You misunderstood what I said!”
- “We just discussed this last yesterday – how could you forget already?!”
Or, have you ever been chatting with someone and kind of “woke up” in the middle of the conversation? You know, like when you’re driving sometimes and realize you missed your exit because you weren’t paying attention (a super scary thought given that I’m usually driving about 80 miles an hour)!
Or maybe you had a dialogue at work and then couldn’t remember anything about it just half an hour later?
In her book, “The Zen of Listening,” communication expert Rebecca Shafir says that the average person only remembers about 25% of what someone has said, just a few minutes after a conversation has ended. And you’re wondering why your partner doesn’t remember that you asked them to take out the garbage or come home by 6:00pm?
Here’s the confusion: If you don’t have any obvious hearing problems, you tend to think that you listen “naturally” and that it’s just something you do automatically, like breathing or digesting.
And this is your mistake. Because listening effectively is actually a skill! It’s something you learn to do.
Hearing is automatic, but listening is a learned skill.
It’s a 3-Part Process
Listening effectively is actually a three-part process, I call Triple A (because all three steps start with the letter “A” and I like to give everything a catchy name). You’re listening effectively when you’ve got these three A’s:
- Attentiveness to nonverbal cues,
- Awareness of your reactions and inner thoughts
- Actively thinking about what the other person is saying.
Understanding that it really is a skill means that you can stop blaming your partner for not hearing you or for misunderstanding what you’ve said. Knowing it’s a skill means you need to know and practice the components of effective listening if you’re going to be any good at it.
(By the way, you might have heard of “mindful listening” but effective listening is, by definition, mindful. So, why are we adding extra words!?!? But I digress….) Let’s get on to the big secret of being “heard.”
The big secret if you want to be heard, is that you need to take full responsibility for it. When we don’t feel heard we tend to blame the other person and focus on what they are or aren’t’ doing. Instead, you need to focus on what you are or aren’t doing. It’s your responsibility to actively set up the conversation so that effective listening can happen and it’s not as hard as you might think, as long as you stick to my 5-step process.
The 5 Step Process to Being Heard:
Step One: Listen effectively yourself. Notice your own thoughts, feelings or physical reactions when someone else is speaking to you. Are you feeling angry, defensive, resentful or frustrated? Whatever you’re thinking and feeling is going to affect how well you listen.
When we’re upset and our amygdala is engaged, we can’t access all the healthy tools we’ve learned and we can’t remember fully what was even said! If you want to be heard, you’ve got to get very focused on listening to your partner. Listen not only to what they’re saying, bit also their body posture and non-verbal cues (like those crossed arms or backing up when you’re speaking to them). Notice how they’re emotionally reacting to you – are they angry, defensive, thoughtful, open?
Don’t just try to push your agenda through. Listen to what the other person says (or doesn’t say) and incorporate that into your discussion.
Being mindful and self-aware is critical for effective communication (meaning being heard as well as hearing your partner). Mindfulness encourages you to be aware of the present moment, and to let go of distractions and your physical and emotional reactions to what people say to you. When you’re not mindful, you can be distracted by your own thoughts and worries and fail to really communicate!
When you’re more self-aware in your moments, you’ll notice that you’re distracted and thinking about something else or maybe reacting strongly to a small request. It’s only when you eliminate your own internal chatter that you tune in 100% to what your partner is saying so you can “hear” all that they’re really communicating.
Step Two: Watch for resistance. If you want to be heard, you’ve got to make sure the other person is open to listening first. If they’re resistant to you or what you’re saying, your dead in the water. How do you know if someone is being resistant? There are four general categories of resistant behavior with clear signs (once you know what to look for):
- Arguing (challenging, discounting, dismissing, open hostility, defensiveness)
- Interrupting (talking over, cutting off, not allowing you to finish a full thought)
- Denying (blaming, disagreeing, excusing, minimizing, pessimism, reluctance, unwillingness to change)
- Ignorance (inattention, non-answer, no response, sidetracking)
If you see ANY of these behaviors, the conversation is going nowhere fast. You’re in a power struggle and you need to shift the energy. The first thing to do is to notice that it’s happening (there’s that pesky self-awareness I keep talking about again).
The second thing to do is… something else! By the way, make sure you’re not the one doing the interrupting or dismissing. Find your patience and keep coming back to the present moment.
Step Three: Get their complete attention first. There are two main ways to do this.
- Pay attention to the environment and make sure there are as few distractions as possible. Notice your surroundings. Is the game on? Are they watching the final episode of Game of Thrones? Is their phone in their hand? Are they eating? Are the kids running in and out of the room? Is the dog barking? You’ve got to minimize outside distractions if you want better results in being heard.
- Ask permission before you start speaking. “Is this a good time to talk?” “There’s something I wanted to ask you, is now a good time?” Then make sure you have their full attention. If it’s not a good time to speak just then, schedule a time for later and keep to that commitment.
Step Four: Keep bringing the focus to the here and now. When you’re bringing something up that’s been bothering you, one of you might use phrases like: “You always X,” or “You never Y.” These aren’t helpful and it puts the focus on past behaviors. Before you know it, you’ll be defending something you did five years ago or arguing about how what they said isn’t true. All of these conversations are dragging you from your goal of being heard in the present.
Instead, I want you to focus on what is happening right now? How are you feeling right now? Bring both of your attention back to the present moment. You’ll need to do this over and over generally as we like to deflect and distract (consciously and unconsciously) in these types of conversations. Notice how you’re feeling and focus on being patient, loving and kind.
Step Five: Have them repeat back what you said. One of the best ways to know if what you’re saying is being understood how you mean it, is to ask for the other person to repeat back what they heard you say. You can ask, “Can you repeat back what you just heard me say?” or “What did you just hear me say?” Generally, they’ll reply in the format of “What I heard you say was…” or “I understand that you want X or think Y.”
Asking the other person to repeat what they heard not only helps you clarify and make sure you’re both on the same page, it also helps keep the other person focused on the present conversation. When you know you’ll need to repeat back something or respond, you pay close attention.
Expect it to Feel Artificial at First
For some of you, following this 5-step process will feel artificial in the beginning, but this is how ALL new skills develop. For example, if you’ve never played tennis before, you’d feel very artificial and stilted in the beginning. You’d be focused on the mechanics: Stop, step forward while I bring the racket back, follow through after I hit the ball, and so on. If you stick with it, however, you’ll get better over time and it’ll become more natural and have a flow. You’ve got to expect it to be more cumbersome and require more effort when you’re first starting out. Just remember that you’ll get the hang of it if you keep practicing.