Tuesday, May 26, 2015

How to Show You're Really Listening

I love the lacy foliage of our Japanese maple. It has nothing to do with the content of this post.
Today, I'm going to share a communication skill that, I believe, could be one of the secrets to happy relationships.


We've all had conversations that go like this:
Ann [dumping her purse on the floor]: Oh, man. What a day! My boss was on my case all afternoon -- it's like I was a scab he couldn't stop picking at.
John: You just need to let it go.
Ann: I just can't stand it. He treats me like I'm an imbecile!
John: He's probably just trying to help you improve.
Ann: He's not even giving me a chance to try. I'm so pissed off.
John [growing tired of all the whining]: You need to confront him or find another job. 
We've all been on both sides of this. Ann feels like John isn't listening to her; he's just trying to solve her problems so she'll shut up. John feels like Ann is just dumping her unhappiness on him and doesn't even listen to the solutions he's offering.

It's a conversation that is going nowhere, fast. In fact, if it's going anywhere, it could be heading for a break-up.


This is an improvement over the status quo. Most of us have been counselled to use "active listening" in our troubled relationship. Essentially, this approach suggests that you echo back what you've just heard. It often feels stilted. And, as someone who has tried it, I found I was, indeed, listening to the other person, but I was simultaneously cataloging what they'd said so I could rephrase it back to them.

It went like this:
Ann: Oh, man. What a day! My boss was on my case all afternoon -- it's like I was a scab he couldn't stop picking at.
John: So he was really on your case.
Ann: As usual! He treats me like I'm an imbecile.
John: You think he's treating you like you're stupid.
Ann: I don't just think so! He is! It's bloody harassment. I'm going to HR tomorrow.
John [panicky because things are escalating]: Maybe you just need to take a day off.
Not much of an improvement. In the Family Connections course that Stephen and I now help teach, they teach a slightly different approach: validation.


As with active listening, validation encourages you to be "mindful" -- I know; a buzzword. But stay with me. By mindful, I mean:
  • Not being preoccupied by something else (like that solitaire game on your iPad)
  • Thinking about your relationship with this person, not about whether they are right or wrong.
  • Suspending judgment. (More on that in this post.)
  • Paying attention to the feelings behind what the other person is saying. Feelings, I will note, are never wrong or right; they just are. 
  • Paying attention to your own feelings.
It's active listening with a slight twist. It goes more like this:
Ann: Oh, man. What a day! My boss was on my case all afternoon -- it's like I was a scab he couldn't stop picking at.
John [noticing the self-judgment of her word choice]: Ouch! That sounds like you really felt it.
Ann [starting to cry]: I just feel really  picked-on. Like he's singling me out for abuse.
John [approaching with a hug]: I'm sorry your day was so rough. Is there anything I can do to help? 
Ann: Well, you could start by opening that bottle of chardonnay.
I know, I know. I've written it so it has a quick, happy ending. [Hello, Hollywood. Yes, I'm interested in writing for you.] But, honestly, it really does make a difference. I know, because I've been on the receiving end of all three approaches, and the one that left me feeling better and the relationship feeling stronger was validation.

It works because, with this approach, you pay attention to the feelings being expressed by the person who is in need at that moment. When someone identifies how I'm feeling, I know they are genuinely paying attention to me, not just to my words. They're not trying to "fix" me or judge me. They are practicing empathy.

My personal observation is that (sadly) we are more likely to use this approach with friends than with partners, parents, or offspring. And I think that's because we are being just a little more careful of their feelings. Interesting, isn't it?

INVALIDATION: How to tell if you're not validating

If the person in need at that moment keeps saying the same thing again and again, or becomes more insistent and starts to show anger, there's a good chance you've been invalidating.

Invalidation includes:

  • "judgey" statements that imply the person in need at that moment is doing (or thinking or feeling) something wrong 
  • expressions like "you should" or "you need to" or "why don't you just". 
  • trying to convince the person in need at that moment that their interpretation of things is wrong
  • broad generalizations like "you always" or "you never"
  • minimizing the other person's emotional distress, suggesting they are overreacting
Now that I know what it is, I've noticed that invalidation makes me feel frustrated and angry at the other person. I've learned to pay attention to that, pause, and then say, "You know. I'm trying to tell you how [hurt, angry, disappointed, frightened] I am, but I don't think you're hearing it." This does two things:
  1. It forces me to identify what I'm feeling rather than expecting the other person to guess.
  2. It stops the negative direction of the conversation. 
We spend several weeks talking about and practicing validation during the Family Connections course, so this post just touches the highlights. It takes practice, but it really makes a difference.

P.S. You'll note that I use the expression "the person in need at that moment" several times. I wish there were a simple pronoun for that, but what I am trying to express that in a dynamic relationship, we each take a turn in that place. Sometimes we're the one in need; sometimes the other person needs us. By saying "at that moment" I indicate that needs change. Neediness changes. The conversation happens in that moment.

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