Listening to Understand
By Allie Lehr, MA, PLMFT
Have you ever been in a “discussion” with someone (a partner, a parent, a sibling or friend) where you feel like you are both talking and listening, yet you are still going around in circles? You are both actively trying to listen and share your perspective, but you are both left feeling unheard and frustrated. As humans, we all want to feel seen and heard.
Whether I am working with couples, families, or friends, this is one of the most common communication patterns I see. The reason this pattern is so frustrating is because both parties are listening, but they are listening to defend their point, rather than listening to hear and understand the other person. Listening to understand the other person’s point can feel really scary because we believe if we don’t share our point right away, it won’t be heard. The irony is, when we feel heard and validated, we are much more open to hearing the other side than when we are shut down.
Below is an example of *discussion* my fiancé and I frequently have and two ways it has gone:
Listening to Defend:
Zach: I told you the dishwasher was clean 2 days ago. Why haven’t you unloaded it?
Allie: Gosh why are you always nagging me? I’ve been really busy with work an haven’t had two second to myself. I don’t understand why you can’t just do it if it bugs you so much.
Zach: Are you kidding me? I do so much in this house. You don’t appreciate me. I asked you to do one thing,
Allie: I do a lot too. You never notice anything I do. You just criticize me.
Insert the rest of a fight here.
Listening to Hear:
Zach: Can you please unload the dishwasher? I told you it was clean 2 days ago and it’s really frustrating that it hasn’t been done.
Allie: I am sorry it’s been frustrating. I have been really overwhelmed with work and keep forgetting.
Zach: You have definitely been busy and it makes sense that you’ve been forgetting. What can I do to help remind you when you are busy so that I don’t feel frustrated and you don’t feel nagged.
Allie: Let’s get a magnet that tells me if it’s clean or dirty to help me keep track. I will work on getting it done within a day. Does that work?
Zach: Thanks for making the effort. I think I can live with that.
In the second example, we are working together to come to a conclusion and hear why the other person is frustrated. When I felt validated in how hard I was working, it was easier to understand his frustration. When he felt validated, in his frustration he was able to have empathy for me. We both still got our points across, but were able to do it in a much kinder way.
Next time you feel yourself going around in circles, ask yourself if you are listening to defend. If you are, try to repeat back what they said and validate before you share your perspective. Who knows, maybe you will both get to feel heard.
JENNIFER EULBERG, MA, LPC
Welcome Jennifer, our new blogger!
Jennifer is a counselor at Sandhill who specializes in depression, self-esteem, and grief & loss. Get to know Jennifer as she shares her perspectives on life, contemplates value themes, and offers gentle encouragement.
THANK YOU to Stefanie Pisarkiewicz, LPC for her blog contributions from November 2014 - February 2019!