I’m not the best listener in the world. I sometimes get a little too caught up in what I want to say next to pay full attention to what people are actually saying. But I really want to get better at it – for two main reasons:
1. I know how it feels to be in a one-sided conversation.
2. You learn a lot more by listening than by talking.
In addition to that, I believe that ultimately, we all want to feel understood. We all want to be heard. But when we open up to people, we sometimes feel invalidated, or even judged for who we are or who we’re not. This lack of acceptance stems from some combination of impatience and misunderstanding.
People make assumptions about who you are and where you’re coming from. It’s not personal; these preconceived notions are all about them. That’s because we most often look for a reflection of ourselves in other people. This isn’t a criticism, just an important observation. We all do it. We all have an inner dialogue that plays on repeat, and affects the way we perceive everything around us – including other people’s expressions of themselves.
So how do we change that? How to we keep an open mind, become better listeners, and thereby broaden our perspective on things? By paying closer attention to what’s right in front of us.
The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention. – Richard Moss
You probably know what it’s like to be in a one-sided conversation that’s all about the other person. They may interrupt you, dismiss your ideas, or consistently bring the conversation back to themselves. And that’s kinda hurtful and discouraging. So in response, you might build a habit of rushing your speech in an effort to be less of a burden or a “nuisance.” Or you might stop talking altogether.
But you also know how good it feels when you walk away from a conversation and feel validated, uplifted – and heard. That’s what we’re looking for. Mutual acceptance + mutual understanding = healthy and rewarding relationship. Listening actively, compassionately, and without judgment is a big part of cultivating that. It also helps you better understand the world around you.
It’s unrealistic to expect to be a perfect listener all the time – I’m definitely not! – but we can all try our best by keeping these things in mind:
When we’re in the middle of a conversation, we tend to spend most of our time thinking of what we’re going to say next. That’s totally natural, but it can get in the way of the whole listening thing. Instead of thinking of what you’re going to say next, or trying to finish the other person’s sentence (either aloud or in your own head), make sure you’re focused on what they’re saying. And instead of making assumptions, ask questions.
With time, you might realize that there’s really no need to rush through a conversation. A big part of conversation anxiety is the fear of silence. As a friend once told me, “silence is part of conversation.” Learn to be at ease with the flow of a conversation rather than trying to steer it a certain way.
Remember, it’s not all about you. I don’t mean that in a mean way! We all live in our own worlds, and it’s sometimes hard to get out of that mindset. We’re so distracted by our own issues that it can even affect the way we understand what another person is telling us. For example, I’ve had people express their understanding of what I’m saying, only to hear them weave a story of their own based on their own experiences. It’s important to avoid projecting your own issues onto others, and be open and receptive to new perspectives – even if you feel like you can’t relate at all. Because truly listening means that it’s not about you.
Ditch the advice
This one can be tough, maybe counterintuitive. If you’re reading this post, it means that you do want to be helpful! We all want to offer solutions. We might think that the only way to show that we’ve been listening is to offer some well-intentioned advice.
But how about trying to just be there? No, seriously. More often than not, people know what’s best for themselves. They may not see it clearly, but just saying things aloud can help them figure it out on their own. Other times, they just need to talk about things, big or small, without the expectation of *cough* unsolicited *cough* advice. Unless the other person clearly asks for your input, there’s no need to tell them what to do. Holding back on advice doesn’t mean you’re being stingy in the compassion department, and it doesn’t make you look uninterested. It really is enough that you’re there, you’re present, and you’re listening.
I have been trying to be a better listener, and these three tips are the ones I like to remind myself of regularly. Do you have any advice on being a better / more compassionate listener? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!