Know When to Listen

I haven’t really spoken about what happens here at the step-down on a day-to-day basis, and that has been largely because I want to protect the confidentiality of the other people here. A number of them are my friends, and a number of them I’d like to be friends with, and revealing their identities online would probably not be such a great start. But we do cover a lot of material in our groups each day that is useful to us, and to me in particular, and which might be helpful out in the rest of the world.

Today, one of the things we covered was the skill of active listening. A lot of the time, people can be divided into two groups – problem solvers and empathic listeners (in the book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, men were the first group and women the second). In conversation between people of both groups, both tend to be frustrated because problem solvers want to solve the other person’s problems, while listeners just want someone who will listen to them and empathize with them. Equally, problem solvers are frustrated when listeners don’t help to solve their problems.

This is problematic, because neither side of that conversation is fulfilled if each tries to pursue their own particular desire. So in order for both parties of a conversation to find some sort of fulfillment, some changes to how the conversation is approached must be made. This is where active listening comes in. It involves a numbers of levels of interaction – acknowledgement, repetition, empathizing, and validation – to allow someone to feel they are being listened to, rather than to simply have their problems solved. If a listener feels that they are being heard and their feelings and thoughts validated, they might then move on to a place that lets the problem solver work to help solve their problems.

Acknowledgement is the most basic level – essentially, it is just nodding your head or saying “Yes,” “Go on,” “I see,” or things along those lines to let the speaker know they are being heard. Repetition is not much more complex, as it essentially has you repeating the speaker’s words back to them, though often in a different order, to show you are listening. Empathizing is the act of, upon hearing what a speaker has to say, noting that they seem to be feeling (emotion), or asking what emotion they are feeling – though this is a bit trickier, as you don’t want to say “Oh, you must be feeling angry/sad/afraid,” because if the speaker feels you are trying to tell them what to feel, they might simply repeat themselves or withdraw entirely. Finally, there is validation, which is, at it’s most basic stage, saying that you understand what they are saying, you see their point, and other such things to validate what the speaker is saying.

In particular, this often seems to be a problem with parents, especially for those people who have one parents, or both, as problem solvers. They simply ask questions until they find something they want to try and fix, and once they have that, they work to try and fix it. This can be admirable, but if they do this while the child wants to simply be listened to, or before the parents have heard the entire story, then their problem solving will just end badly for everyone. For someone who knows that they are inclined to either role, who is speaking to someone who seems to be having a problem or issue that requires listening, it can be immensely helpful to just have them ask, “What do you need from me, feedback or listening?” That simple question – and then adhering to the answer – can help to save a lot of trouble.

Active listening is something I have difficulty with, mostly because I never quite know what to say in conversations with people I don’t know well. Those friends I have made probably had to bear the weight of most of our initial conversations before I felt comfortable in that situation. I am great at listening itself, but letting the other person know I am listening, that I understand their points and their feelings, is what I have trouble with. I’ve learned to ask a lot of clarifying questions in conversations like this, but I’m still not very good at initiating things.

This is actually the root of a problem I’m having with another person here. To put it bluntly, neither of us seems to be very good at initiating conversation with someone we don’t know well, so our ‘conversations’ tend to be very laconic, almost monosyllabic. I’d love to find out more about him so that I can get to know him, but I don’t know where to start. From all I’ve heard, he’s a great guy and loyal friend once you get to know him, but thus far my somewhat meager attempts to break through the ice haven’t gotten me much. It’s hard to be an active listener is neither side of the potential conversation is saying much, but I’m trying.


P.S. – if you’re here at the step-down with me, you should totally follow my blog. Otherwise I will make a sad face at you. It will make you feel super guilty, like kicking a puppy. Just make it easy on yourself and hit the Follow button. Oh, and other people are welcome to follow me too, of course, but I probably won’t make a sad face at you – or will I?