by Roberta Horton, L.C.S.W., A.C.S.W.
What does it mean to really listen to another person?
When you are listening to someone, you are giving him or her your complete attention. It is a powerful experience for the listener and for the person being heard. To feel listened to is to feel understood, and less alone. While the desire to be heard is universal, if you are living with a chronic illness like arthritis, your need to be truly listened to might be especially strong. At the same time, listening is a mutual process. As you need to be listened to by those with whom you interact, so they need to feel that you are listening to them.
Of course, you would not expect the same level of listening between strangers as you would between close friends. Your expectations of being listened to, and how you are heard, will differ based on your relationship with the other person and how he or she fits into the different kinds of relationships in your life:
However, if you can set a framework for effective listening within your close family, friends, and social circle, you can also use it as a guide for effective listening with others.
You most likely want to be able to express deeper feelings with your most intimate circle without fear of being judged or put down. You want to feel that a close friend or family member is curious enough to wish to get to the heart of what you are expressing. For example, you may want to tell your spouse or partner that you do not have the same energy as in the past to engage in activities. Other times you may be resentful, angry, or frustrated about how arthritis limits you. Or maybe you are just having a bad day, and want to share it with someone who “gets it.” Most of all, you want your partner to know that you are not rejecting him or her when you say “no” to going to a movie, when you feel sad because you learn of a new symptom, or when you are scared about taking a new medicine. How can you help your intimate others learn to listen and understand you better?
You’ve probably heard the expression “a born listener.” A born listener is someone who has a natural talent for drawing people out and understanding them. People tend to more freely confide in them. Most of us are not born listeners, but we can develop our listening skills if we are willing to learn and practice them. Sometimes, of course, a person is well-intentioned but not aware that his or her listening style can be improved. Here are some tips you can use to help you become a better listener. Consider sharing them with those who are close to you.
Eye contact and body language. Both eye contact and body language convey to another person how well you are listening. In fact, it is thought that up to 85% of communication is expressed by body language and other nonverbal signals. Body language is influenced by culture, as well as by personal style and comfort. Making eye contact and leaning toward a person in a relaxed manner with open rather than crossed arms, for example, usually conveys increased interest and attention. In some cultures, however, avoiding eye contact may be a sign of respect. And acceptable levels of physical contact between people differ widely among different cultures. When listening to someone, it is therefore very important to be aware of what your body language is conveying in your particular personal, family, and cultural context.
Verbal style. The speed at which you speak and your voice tone and pitch can make a big difference in how you are heard. Words said with an angry edge feel very different from the same words spoken in a soft voice.
Brief encouragers. As you are listening, sharing words such as “uh-huh,” “yes,” or “tell me more” may help the other person know that you are curious and want to learn more about the “full story.”
Demonstrating empathy. By tuning into someone’s feelings, you can let that person know that you are really listening at a deeper level. You can sense other people’s feelings not only by the content of what they are saying, but also by their nonverbal cues. Sensing and then acknowledging that someone is feeling scared or angry, for example, helps that person feel understood and accepted. Feelings don’t have to be agreed with or justified. They are just feelings.
One way of gauging how someone else is feeling might be to ask, “It sounds like you are feeling ________. Is that the case?”
Last Reviewed on September 5, 2012
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