Are you really listening?

There have been scenarios in my life where I needed to speak to someone that listens without giving me advice, solution or judge me in return. At those moments, all I needed was a listening ear. However, these are the responses I received:

Me: I hate my job.

Friend: At least you have a job. You should be grateful for having one in this economy.

Me: I’m bored of this city.

Friend: You are living in one of the world’s most popular business hubs, what’s not to love about this place?

Me: I feel like making a career change.

Friend: Now? At 35! Are you crazy!

Me: I’m overwhelmed with amount of stuff I need to do. Not sure where to start.

Friend: Easy. Get a piece of paper, list all the stuff you need to do and then tackle it one item at a time. That’s what I do.

What I really wanted to hear:

Me: I hate my job.

Friend: What is it about your job that you hate?

Me: I‘m bored of this city.

Friend: Yeah… I understand why someone would feel that way after living here for long time.

Me: I feel like making a career change.

Friend: That’s exciting! What do you have in mind?

Me: I’m overwhelmed with the amount of stuff I need to do. Not sure where to start.

Friend: I know what you mean. Have you been in a situation like that before?

Me: Yes

Friend: How did you tackle it?

Wouldn’t the second dialogue be more helpful and build a better connection between both of us? Sometimes you just want someone to listen to you, but most of the time, our family and friends (with the best intentions in the world) want to solve the problem and give advice.

Most people do not listen at a very deep level. We listen at a superficial level, getting the gist of where the story is going, and then our mind gets busy searching for something to say. We look for comparable stories or one that’s just a little more theatrical: “You think that’s crazy, let me tell you about the time I…”

In the second scenario, the listener was listening empathetically. Empathy is the ability to project oneself into the personality of another person in order to better understand that person’s emotions or feelings. Through empathic listening the listener lets the speaker know, “I understand your problem and how you feel about it, I am interested in what you are saying and I am not judging you.”

In sympathetic listening we care about the other person and show this concern in the way we pay close attention and express our sorrow for their troubles and happiness at their joys. However, it also can be disempowering. The sympathetic perspective tends to place you above the other, placing you in an “I’m fine and you’ve got a problem” stance. While this statement may not be uttered, it may be the underlying feeling sentiment.

Honestly, I did not understand fully the difference between sympathetic and empathetic listening until I covered this topic in life coaching course/training. Ever since I understood the difference, I became aware of it all the time and I started seeing it all the time. It’s like when you learn a new word and then suddenly it pops up everywhere you go. So, when friends, family and people in general are having a conversation, I see clearly when people are not listening to each other. I see the frustrations.

While I’m still working on improving my listening skills, here are some tips that I’ve found useful:

  • Don’t interrupt and don’t impose your “solutions” if not asked by the speaker.
  • We need to understand that we are different from one another. If an approach or a solution works for us, it does not mean it works for others.
  • Don’t discount the speaker’s feelings by using typical phrases like “It’s not that bad” or “You’ll feel better tomorrow.”
  • Be non-judgmental & open-minded. Don’t minimize or trivialize the speaker’s issue. Listen without judging the other person or mentally criticizing the things they tell you.
  • Don’t feel you must have an immediate reply. Often if you allow for some quiet after the speaker has vented, they themselves will break the silence and offer a solution.
  • Listen without jumping to conclusions. Remember that the speaker is using language to represent their thoughts and feelings. You don’t know what those thoughts and feelings are and the only way you’ll find out is by listening.

listen to understand