Listening Is a Verb
by Lara Postma, MA, LPC
As someone who listens for a living, it amazes me how often my skills can diminish when at home. My husband begins to tell me something about his day, exactly the kind of sharing I encourage in clients every day, and my mind drifts onto something I’ve been thinking about or need to do. I get a text on my phone and check it without thinking. If I’m cooking, my best efforts to listen are competing with all the external distractions and my own running thoughts.
Listening is an action that takes effort. And when it comes to our family relationships, it’s one of the hardest, most underestimated tools you can use to connect with the people you love most.
Here’s what competes with listening well with our family members:
- Repetitive topics: There’s usually nothing new or different to catch our attention. Most of daily life in our home is a combination of familiar details, people, issues and problems we deal with day-to-day.
- Emotional dissonance: Home is the place where most of us feel like we can just be ourselves, and that includes our uncomfortable emotions, traits, and attitudes. If we are annoyed with what our family member is saying, doing, or feeling, we can get in the habit of tuning it out to avoid conflict in ourselves.
- Using communication as punishment: Many of us learn to express anger, hurt, resentment, and other emotions by refusing to communicate. We stop talking and/or listening as a form of “punishment,” using the behavior in an effort to receive an apology or other expression of remorse from a loved one.
So, with all that going for us, are we really listening to each other at all? And what habits can we keep in mind and learn to strengthen if listening is a challenge in our family relationships?
Take notice of your daily distractions and focus: Do you need to put your phone away, stop what you’re doing for a minute as a signal to yourself to look up, focus, and listen to what is being said? How about muting the television, putting down your electronic or book, or turning off the car music? Give the speaker your full attention.
Make it a habit to ask questions: Nothing increases understanding more when we are listening to another person than asking relevant questions. By asking for more information, you will add details, extend the conversation, and increase your connection and memory of the discussion. People open up when they know they’re really being listened to.
Listen to what they are NOT saying: Most of our conversations aren’t just about problem-solving, arranging schedules, or fact-finding. We talk to share ourselves, and we do this by sharing both thoughts and feelings. Feelings may be expressed through inflection, tone or body language. It’s listening for what someone is/isn’t saying or is/isn’t doing.
Don’t judge: This is easier said than done. I don’t think we judge our family members so much as we fall into the trap of assuming and comparing our own experiences to be the same as theirs. Heads up…it’s not the same.
Get curious: Curiosity is a close sister to listening. When you combine the two, that’s when the magic happens. The 3 biggest things that get in the way of curiosity are your agenda, having the answers and being right. If you find that you are silently saying to yourself as you “listen”:
“I know what you mean, BUT”
“Honey, you shouldn’t worry about that”
“It will be fine”
“I get it…when I was your age…”
“Really?! That happened to me too…”
These are conversation killers.
As busy as our lives are, we can become complacent and distracted by our daily routines. Listening is one of the most underrated superpowers we have and among the hardest to do well. Make it a point to develop good listening skills as a family member. It’s an exercise of flexing both restraint and curiosity.
When someone is really listening to you—interested, empathizing—you feel known and understood. And that goes a long way for fostering our most important relationships.