Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

When Good Listening Is Not Enough

June 14, 2004

Good listening. In the past, I have put most of the responsibility on the listener to use reflection, curiosity, and detachment from one’s own agenda as tools for drawing out a speaker and communicating empathy and understanding.

I have even suggested that the speaker can be, "as nasty as he or she wants to be." It is up to the listener not to overreact to inaccuracies, provocative expressions or exaggerations, off-putting tone of voice or body language, and to stay with the intent of the message. The listener by artful paraphrasing can deliberately minimize or bypass content that otherwise could be disputed.

By checking out if his or her summaries are accurate, the listener can verify understanding. A listener can readily admit to confusion and solicit a clarification of points that were unclear. Listeners need to restrain their impulse to interrupt, give an opinion, explain, be "right", deflect blame, criticize or further their own agenda.

Some people listen for understanding; others listen to rebut or attack. There is a huge difference in attitude. Debaters aren’t trying to learn; they are trying to win.

A good listener stays with the speaker’s line of thinking until he or she completes their thoughts. Asking open-ended questions and being curious leads to more in-depth understanding.

Listeners need to be aware of their body language. Obvious non-verbal signals disagreement, impatience, disgust, anger, discouragement or other emotions.

Listeners can let the speaker know when they are being overloaded with too much information. They can also let the speaker know when they are being flooded with anger or sorrow or other arousing emotions which interfere with their ability to listen.

That is a lot to lay on a listener. What I haven’t done enough of is emphasize the speaker’s responsibility.

What the speaker can do. My usual advice is to be aware of body language, tone of voice, and to shorten up points to fit the attention span of the listener. I also encourage the speakers to invite summaries that show comprehension and to soften up communications by using conditional and tentative expressions that show respect and openness to other’s ideas. Non-abrasive words and expressions can be tactfully chosen to minimize defensiveness.

Here and now. What I haven’t done enough of is to help speakers in giving attention to one’s own immediate thoughts and feelings and to those of others. If speakers learn to communicate in the here-and-now about the details of what is going on with themselves, this does not leave room for argument.

Kathleen and C. Gay Hendricks in an article entitled, "Operational Integrity," state that, "to communicate the details of what is going on in any given moment in a way that invites wonder and that does not blame anyone promotes connection more quickly than any one communication skill."

This means being open, operating in the present, giving full attention to immediate thoughts and feelings of others and not worrying about the consequences of the disclosure.

Some of my coaching is to be an alter ego for the speaker and to verbalize what I think is really going on with him or herself. I help the speaker break through defensiveness and fear and say what he or she really feels. This kind of openness draws out genuine communication from others.

Here are some examples of giving here and now responses:

- Body sensations. "Right now I feel like I have butterflies in my stomach." "I was in a fog and drifted off and missed what you just said." "This meeting is getting long. I need to stretch. I’d like to get up and move around while we continue." "When you apologized, it felt like a big weight had been lifted off my shoulders."

- Core feelings. "I am scared to death about what you are about to tell me." "I was too embarrassed by what I did and tried to cover it up." "What you are telling me makes me so upset, I am having trouble listening to you. Could I say something before you go any further?"

- Specific thoughts/imaginings/interpretations. "When you didn’t answer me, I took that as a ‘yes’." "I was distracted by my own thoughts and didn’t really hear that last point." "I got confused by what I perceived as sarcasm in your voice and didn’t know if you really meant what you just said."

- Familiar patterns and experiences. "Once I get angry, it takes me a while to want to work on the problem. I generally hold a grudge for a while." "When you get that look in your eye, I shut down and don’t even want to try."

Emotional vocabulary. Good communicators develop an emotional vocabulary to express their inner feelings and experiences. Describing emotions, talking from the heart, and giving non-judgmental attention to others feelings promotes connection and unity.

People need to really open up and say their true feelings. With the miracle of dialogue and understanding, bridges can be crossed, helping hands are extended and genuine caring is shared.

The truth hurts. The truth also heals. The art of communicating is to tell the truth so that it can be understood. The art of communicating is to tell your truth with compassion. But the truth needs to be told. Even the best listeners can’t fill in the gap of what is not shared.