Melissa Malcolm, RP #9925 is a Registered Psychotherapist at MyLife Counselling in Guelph. She works with couples, youth, and adults through relationships, anxiety, depression, chronic illness, and grief & loss. Learn more about Melissa here.

How to Listen and Why it Matters

We have all been in a situation before where we are trying to express our feelings and needs and leave the conversation feeling unheard and unseen. Our conversation partner may be distracted, or cut us off as we speak, or they are jumping to solving the problem without getting curious about your perspective first. This is such a frustrating and upsetting experience and can have major impacts on our relationships and level of closeness with the people around us. As such, the skill of active listening is so crucial to developing meaningful, fulfilling relationships.

So, you might be asking: what is active listening, and why is it so challenging? Active listening involves being truly present and engaged in a conversation, and typically involve your body language- actions like head nodding, eye contact and non-verbal cues and facial expressions that signal empathy is an important way to show that you are truly listening and engaged during a conversation. This may seem simple enough written out but is often challenging to practice because of distractions and everyday life demands. We are going to explore why active listening matters in the next section, and then how we can listen effectively.

Why does listening matter?

Listening is the single most significant way to signal to someone that you care about them and that their feelings and experiences matter. Think about what kind of messages you may send to someone, or someone may have sent to you when practicing active listening is not occurring. This may include messages like:

“Your feelings are not important to me.”
“I do not care about your worries/ feelings/ hopes/ dreams.”
“Whatever I am focused on right now or distracted with right now is more important.”

Which leads to a message of “you and your feelings do not matter” and “you are not important to me.” These messages are hurtful regardless of the intent of the actions and lead to a much more sinister outcome.

In relationship counselling, we discussed the value and importance of bids for connections and growing emotional closeness. Bids for connection take place throughout all our conversations, and if we are unable to recognize the importance of these bids, the person who sends out these bids will not feel that their bid was received. When we do not feel heard, understood, or respected, emotional connection starts to break down. This can lead one to withdraw and turn away, and as a result feel more disconnected in their relationship, even though the original goal was to turn toward their loved one and feel more connected and closer.

Why is listening so hard?

Now that we understand the value of active listening, you may be wondering what makes it so hard in the first place. Distraction can certainly play a significant role in impacting our ability to actively listen. We live busy lives and have tasks to juggle at any given time, so giving your full attention to a conversation can be significantly challenging. We can call these ‘external’ barriers.

There are also ‘internal’ barriers to active listening. This can include your energy level- you may notice that when your partner or child tries to bring up important conversations at night before bed you have a challenging time actively engaging in the conversation due to tiredness. Another element to this includes your own assumptions about what the speaker is saying. Our brains are naturally meaning-making machines, so we will use past experiences to make assumptions about what others are saying. However, these assumptions may be inaccurate and can lead to further misunderstanding, conflict, and less emotional connection. For example, if your partner is complaining about chores not being done around the house, you might personalize or internalize this and see this as an attack on you, which will lead to defensiveness. This is why it is so valuable and important to check our assumptions and check in on other assumptions during conversations, as assumptions are truly at the root of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

How to listen?

Now that we have covered why listening matters and why it is so important, it is important to explore how we can actively listen and be present and engaged in our relationships. One of the biggest factors involved in active listening is to be intentionality. Being an intentional listener means a few things- it means being intentional about watching for assumptions, repairing when there is a disconnection and being aware of the internal barriers that keep us from being fully engaged. This can be particularly challenging, especially when it is a new skill! One strategy to practice being more intentional may be to set aside time with the person who you want to have a conversation with and try to limit distractions and be present. Over time, this may happen a bit more organically, but setting aside time to do this at first can keep you focused on your goal of being an active listener.

Next, get curious! This is part of reducing the risk for assumptions- if the person were talking to says something you perceive as hurtful, or you are not sure how to interpret the comment, try to get curious about what they said and what their intent was. It is in these moments that we often get to peel back another layer in the conversation and encourage connection and closeness. Also, getting curious about someone’s inner world is a wonderful way to make them feel heard, understood, and really listened to. Even if you think you understand someone’s point of view, still try to get curious. You might say something like:

“What I am hearing is _________________. Is this accurate?

Lastly, delay problem-solving until the other person is ready. Jumping to problem-solving is a normal reaction- we do not like to see the people whom we care about struggling and want to help them feel better. However, the person you are talking to already has a solution, they simply need support to help them feel confident to enact the solution. Alternatively, we may argue that you must completely understand the intricacies of the situation to be able to offer truly valuable and well-considered feedback. This can play out in a two-step sequence, and you can ask questions like:

1. “Are you feeling heard and understood?” and “Are there parts of this that I’m missing?”

If the person you are talking to says that they do not feel heard and understood, or there are parts that are missing, continue to practice your active listening skills and getting curious. However, if they say that they do feel heard and understood, you can ask:

2. “How can I best support you right now?” and “Do you need time alone, support or solutions?”

It can be helpful to provide options as the person whom you are having a conversation may not know what they need in that moment and having a few options to choose from can help them best direct you on the type of support they need.

Final Thoughts

Active listening is a learned skill which can reap benefits in so many areas of your life and in every relationship you have. Continuing to practice active listening, and admitting when you could have listened better, can really help with communication challenges, and make your relationships closer and feel more fulfilling. As a final thought, be sure to be kind to yourself when you fail to actively listen- it takes time to develop this skill, and the more you practice (and fail!), the more your relationships with benefit.

Melissa Malcolm, RP #9925 is a Registered Psychotherapist at MyLife Counselling in Guelph. She works with couples, youth, and adults through relationships, anxiety, depression, chronic illness, and grief & loss. Learn more about Melissa here.

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