• David Unger PhD

Alphabet Series - L is for Listening



Listen up; this post is about the fine art of listening. It is one of those skills that they don’t really teach in schools, but which the world expects you to know. Teachers expect students to listen, parents expect their children to listen, lovers want their lovers to listen and I want you to listen. We want to be listened to, but like a lot of skills it is something very few people are taught well.


I don't know if I can teach it any better, but I am going to take a shot. Here are my ABC’s about how to improve your listening skills.


A – Attend. Listening is enhanced when you actually pay attention to what the person is saying as well as not saying. Listen and observe what you hear and what you see. So often in conversations people are multi-tasking. You are listening while you are doing something else.You get half credit for that. If you want full credit stop doing the other thing and just listen. They will appreciate it more and I think you will too.


When I was in graduate school we had a conversation about the therapist taking notes during sessions. Some people thought it showed the client that what he or she said was important and worth noting. Other people thought it distanced the therapist from the person talking because you were writing at the same time you were listening. I was in that camp. If you want to listen, listen. If you want to write notes, text or do anything other than listen that is fine. Just don’t do it with me when you want to talk about anything important. If we are going to banter and talk about the weather or other generally benign matters than go ahead and multi-task. If we are going to have a "talk," I would prefer we focus on that. I think that is one of the reasons therapy is helpful. For the most part, the therapist is attending to you.


B – Be aware. What you think you hear may or may not be what the person is saying. We hear through our own lens. Someone may say that they are worried about something and you think you have a good sense of what it means to worry. But you don’t. You have a good sense of what it means for you to worry, but even though you may know the other person pretty well, you don't really know how it is for her or him to worry. You have an idea, but you need to remind yourself and the other that you don't fully know what it feels like to be them, but you want to know as much as you can. If someone says they are worried ask what that means to them. Don’t assume you know. You want to hear what they are experiencing and how they think and feel about it. It is easy to go for the superficial, but if you want to upgrade having meaningful conversations, take the extra step and ask instead of assume.


C – Curious. When you are listening to someone, you will have reactions to what they say. What they say will spark you and you will want to share your own thoughts and feelings. That is fine, but it is not listening. Before you make the conversation about you, be more curious about them. Ask them to explain more, give you an example, tell you why what they are saying is important to them. Your job as a listener is to be a detective. You want to detect what they are really saying. And here is where therapists make a good portion of their money – what they say at first may not be what they really mean. It sometimes takes some uncovering to get at the root of something. Which is why therapist's say "Tell me more."


If someone says they are worried, you need to find out what that means for them. Maybe it means they are afraid, scared, immobilized, confused or wanting to hide. You want to hear the words they use and probe what those words mean for them. We all have been a little worried and a lot worried. You can ask them to rate their worry on a 1-10 scale.


If you want bonus points you can throw in more compassion and empathy and you ought to start to hear your listening skills being praised.


While I am writing about listening to others, I am also wanting you to listen to yourself. I mentioned in another post (Alphabet Series - H is for Health) a way to have conversations with yourself. Just as you might inquire to another how they are doing you can ask yourself the same question. You can be curious about why you think/feel and do the things you do. Talking to yourself is something people make jokes about, but when you are alone I can't think of a better person for you to be talking with. It's when you start to have conversations with yourself when you are out in public that the concern flag goes up. But when you are alone you can reflect on your life and listen to yourself.


People often talk in generalities and while there are benefits to that, if you want to get to the heart of the matter you are going to need to hear what is really being said. Asking yourself and others what you/they really mean and what you/they want and maybe most importantly to you what you/they want from you right now.

#listening #ABCs #therapy #attend #Curious

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