Updated: Mar 8, 2020
Are you listening, or are you just hearing? (Part 2)
We have all been in THAT situation: A friend complains about a romantic partner, a colleague complains about a work group, a family member complains about a terrible day—and we hear these tales and want to help by fixing. For those of you that have ever attempted to “fix” by starting with “what you should have done was…” or, “what I would have done is…” chances are, you probably made the situation worse. The reason being: we mistake advice giving with active listening. For the second part of the listening series, I am going to focus on Active Listening. Active listening is a great skill to keep in the repertoire on a personal level AND a professional level. The steps to active listening are as follows:
1). Demonstrating empathy towards a situation: The first step in active listening is to indicate to the speaker that you hear them (have heard, attended, understood, and remember, see post one in the Listening Series). If the speaker is expressing an emotion, paraphrase that emotion right back to them as a means of validating their feelings. Take into account body language, tone, mannerisms, and other nonverbal instances to help you fill in the picture of how the speaker may feel. Even if you don’t agree with the source of the feelings the speaker is expressing (in other words, you’re tempted to respond with “suck it up!”), the best move is to acknowledge that you understand their state of mind.
2). Ask for clarification about the problem: Asking for clarification or feedback demonstrates true interest into the situation without attempting to solve the problem, or offer suggestions about how you would have handled the situation. Advice giving in communicative exchanges is actually harmful to the relationship is the advice-giver has not been asked for advice. The reason for the resulting harm is as follows: 1) the hearer might mistake advice as criticism for not handling a situation the “right” way; 2) the hearer may feel as though they are being told that they are incapable or incompetent in handling a situation; and 3) the advice-giver inadvertently make the hearer feel judged. Instead of filling in what you would have done, ask questions that continue to “talk” out the situation.
3). Provide non-judgmental feedback: Providing non-judgmental feedback indicates to the hearer that you’re following the situation and continuing to empathize with the situation. You’re engaging in actively listening to the situation rather than trying to offer a solution.
Here are a few situations and sample active listening examples:
The friend talking about the romantic partner: Your friend looks agitated and is talking rapidly about the trouble that has been occurring with their romantic partner. Your friend says, “I try so hard to plan nice dates and I feel like I am never appreciated. I am so angry!”
Active listening response: “Clearly you seem frustrated and I can understand how feeling like you’re never appreciated can lead to anger. What are the events that have not worked out? (Your friend would most likely respond to this question —answer accordingly based on their response). Wow, a concert and an elaborate home-cooked meal?! That does seem like you put a lot of thought into the dates. I’m sorry that your dates haven’t gone well* and I hope that the next date turns out better.”
Co-Worker complaining about a work group: Your coworker bursts into your office and drops into your chair. They look disheveled and exhausted. “My team keeps missing deadlines. I stayed up until 4:00 this morning, going over reports that were supposed to be due two days ago. I am just at my wits end with the whole team missing deadlines and having the work fall on my shoulders!”
Active listening response: “I would be exhausted as well if I stayed up until 4:00 in the morning. I would also be as frustrated as you seem to be. What do you think you are going to do about the group? (Answers will of course vary—tell the boss; talk to the team; avoid the problem all together; yell at the team; etc.) I hope that [that method they responded with] yields better results for you.”
These are just a few ways to respond using Active Listening. Some people may be skeptical about how Active Listening works, and may be hesitant to try to respond through the steps. Common complaints are “these phrases seem hokey/phony/too-leave-it-to-beaver,” and the only advice I have for you is to try active listening out, and see how you do. At the very least, you won’t make a bad situation worse!
*(NOTE: Some people says “I’m sorry that this situation is happening, etc.”…offering an apology would be a personal choice or preference.)