I don’t know if a day goes by without me asking my 3 year old daughter, “What did I just say?” Yes, it is often in an exasperated tone, because I am still somewhat sleep deprived with night-time potty training and the entrance of our newborn. Nevertheless, more often than not, my first princess is able to repeat what I asked her to do. Although this does not translate into her following through immediately, it does help me know that she heard me.
When couples, families and even individuals ask me to help them work through communication issues I encourage the use of a similar phrase. If you want to improve communication, the best place to start is by becoming a better listener. 9 times out of ten, people prioritize speaking over listening. If both parties are more focused on speaking than listening, it makes perfect sense that neither party is heard accurately or adequately.
Good listeners hear accurately and listen adequately.
Listening accurately is evidenced by being able to repeat what the person has said. I teach a game to my clients that relies heavily on this skill; being able to repeat as closely as possible what the other person has said. While it sounds easy, it’s actually quite challenging, especially if you’re upset. Most people either get distracted by their own thoughts and want to defend their position or ask questions to prove a point and teach the other person a lesson. For the purposes of this particular game and improving this skill, I simply don’t allow any these kinds of contributions, “That’s not what she said.. Try again… That’s interesting, I heard something completely different”. To put it simply, if you can not repeat what someone has said, there is a strong chance that you were not paying enough attention and simply were not listening well! So, literally, the person is not being heard.
Despite the poor listening at the onset of learning this new way of communicating, we often get a good laugh out of it and a clear understanding of how too many significant and potentially healing conversations either fail to get off the ground or crash and burn in a matter of minutes. As tensions rise, old patterns kick in and tempers flare. While these dynamics contribute to people not feeling heard, it’s not the main culprit in listening inadequately.
One of the main reasons people who try to listen adequately fail to do so, is, paraphrasing. While paraphrasing is a skill honed and intentionally wielded by counsellors, it opens the door to interpreting and misinterpreting what others are saying. Misinterpretation is often accompanied by assuming you know what the other person means or is about to say. This happens frequently with couples who’ve been married “forever”. While they do know each other well because they have so much history, that “history” is often overrun with misinterpretation or worse, changes in the heart, mind and life of the other person that have gone unnoticed for years!
Obviously, this dynamic occurs in parent-child relationships too. Whether they are primary school-age children, teens or adults, parents often believe their historic knowledge of their child’s development is equivalent to understanding how life has impacted them, shaped their values and their choices. If my wife regularly assumed she knew what I was going to say to her and often misinterpreted what I actually did say, I would not only be unheard, but would feel unheard, which for many people leads to a decrease in conversations or an escalation of anger.
So, a simple strategy to avoid inaccurate and inadequate listening is to simply say, “What I heard you say was….” and then clarify, “Did I get that right”. Alternatively, if you feel unheard or are almost positive that the other person did not listen well, you can ask “What did you hear me say?” Of course, when asking this question, a respectful tone that embodies understanding and genuine curiosity is essential!
There are a few more steps to this game, but suffice it to say, you’ll be much closer to listening accurately and adequately when you can demonstrate that you’ve listened well!
Best to your improved listening in your most significant relationships.
If I can improve here, so can you!