What’s so hard about listening?

The four-step process that I’m recommending to mend fractured relationships is: ask questions, listen, affirm, and respond or reframe.

Last week, I talked about the first step in this process, how to ask questions in this polarized environment. This week, I’ll focus on the next step, listening. Listening is so important! Epictetus, a Greek philosopher, supposedly said “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” This means you should listen twice as much as you should talk.

It sounds easy to sit there and do nothing. How hard can it be? A lump on a log could do it. But we aren’t lumps; we’re people. That makes it harder, not easier. And we never get taught to listen. There are no courses in listening. It may seem that listening is a waste of time.

Another reason we have a hard time listening is that we want to be listened to. We want to hear ourselves talk. Further, our brains can process words more quickly than a mouth can speak them, so we get impatient. Alternatively, sometimes we misuse our listening by listening only to find things that we disagree with or things we can use as a weapon.

What are some of the signals of non-listening? Interrupting, changing the subject, looking at screens or other things. We know when someone isn’t listening to us. We can tell. What happens when we don’t listen is that no one feels listened to.

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It’s also especially hard to listen quietly when we disagree with what the person is saying. I see people trying to listen to people they disagree with, but the attempt to listen backfires. They get angry and sometimes it makes the divide even wider. The real question is, “How do you really listen when you disagree?” That’s a tougher question.

But if you want to mend a fractured relationship, it’s time to learn how to really listen.

I’m talking about those relationships that have been torn apart because we have been arguing about politics. To mend those, we must change our ways. One way to start is by listening in a new way.

Here’s what some experts say plus my own ideas. Because this has been so hard for us to learn how to listen, I think it’s important to prepare to listen, so I’ve added in a bunch of stuff that will help us be ready to listen.

The first step to listening productively is to make sure that you’re in a good space mentally. That means taking care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. You can’t listen productively if you’re in need of care yourself. Check in with yourself. Don’t even try if you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. If you find yourself in a challenging conversation and you aren’t in a good space, ask for time and promise to come back to it. You can say something like, “I’m really interested in hearing more about your ideas, but now isn’t a good time for me. Let’s pick a time to continue this conversation.”

Second, slow down. We tend to want to race ahead to the conclusion, but the process is important. I know I’m guilty of this more than almost any of these other things I’m going to recommend against. Prepare by practicing deep breathing or meditation or take a walk in nature. Just being outdoors can positively impact your ability to slow down, if you pay attention to it. Don’t expect nature to work its magic if you are multitasking. Pay attention to the sounds of the birds, look at the leaves on the trees and the grass and the clouds.  

Third, focus on what you’re trying to accomplish. You’re trying to understand, not trying to accumulate evidence in an argument. Your objective needs to be that you want to further the relationship, not “win.” Yes, I know you also want to get your point across, but for now, focus on the relationship. If you stay in a relationship with someone you disagree with, the conversation may change and the person’s thinking may evolve. Try to remember you’re in it for the long haul.  

Fourth, try to accept the person how they are. Accept that there might be good reasons for the disagreement. The world is filled with people with lots of different opinions. Not everyone has to agree with you. They might have a valuable insight that you need to learn. Be open to being changed yourself. After all, you want them to accept you; you need to accept them.

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Fifth, detach emotionally. Don’t let your ego be involved. This isn’t about you, it’s about them. Don’t be defensive. You have nothing to defend. This isn’t about you and what you believe. That’s your ego getting involved. Instead, make it about them.

Sixth, decide on the boundaries you want to set for the conversation. In her book “Braving the Wilderness,” Brené Brown reported that people who were successful in these types of difficult conversations set boundaries where they would not listen to dehumanizing language. That’s because that helped them feel safe in the conversation. You also might want to set a boundary that no one will be attacked. This will let you know when you have to stop listening, and you need to say something. You can either set these boundaries up front or when something happens that violates these boundaries. But make it part of your preparation, so you know what you will do if it occurs. And one way you can respond is to say, “Ouch, that hurt.”

Last, find a good physical place to have the discussion. Outdoors is good, but so is any place with a window with an expansive view. That should help to open up the conversation.

Now, we finally get to what to do during the conversation!

Practice being present. Just the fact of our physical presence is a gift we can give to another. This is the core of what we do when we visit a sick friend. Feel your essence and theirs. If you are comfortable with this idea, say a silent prayer for the other and for your conversation. Or, if you think the other person may agree, ask if it’s ok for you to say a prayer out loud, perhaps something simple like: “God, please be with us and help us to have a productive conversation and learn to understand one another better.”

Keep an open mind and don’t judge. Don’t come to conclusions, don’t finish sentences, even in your mind. It will show. You are there to learn, not to judge.

Stay relaxed but attentive. If the person says something you want to respond to, don’t! Instead, practice deep breathing and attentiveness. If you find yourself impatient, go back to the slow down step. Remind yourself that you’ll get a chance to respond, later.

Listen with new ears. If you’ve been doing reading or doing other work to understand people unlike you, use that information to get to a deeper level of understanding than you’ve been able to before. There are many sources of information that can be helpful — of course, my book is one of them. Compare what you’re hearing from the person to what you’ve been reading. It may help what you’ve learned come alive or it may contradict it. Be open to what you’re hearing as being truth for that person. And look for what’s underneath what the person is saying. Hopefully, if you’ve done that homework, you can identify the moral foundation(s) that are driving what the person is saying.

Pay attention to the non-verbal cues. Conversation isn’t just words, what happens non-verbally influences the meaning of what is said. But we often just focus on the words. To go beyond that, you need to look at the person, including looking at the person’s face. If you find it uncomfortable to do that for long periods of time (as I do), at least glance at their face every so often. Then you can move to look at the other parts of their body that aren’t intrusive, like their hands or their legs. Or let your eyes go to a soft focus that encompasses the entire person. Also pay attention to their tone of voice. What words do they emphasize? How does their tone change throughout the conversation? Assess their emotion. Are they enthusiastic or bored or upset? Are there things they hesitate over and things they don’t? Notice all of it. Doing this helps in a number of ways. It helps you to pay attention because it gives your brain something else to do beside processing words that are coming more slowly than your brain recognizes them. That can help with our tendency to become impatient. It also gives you more information about the person and how they feel. Further, it really helps the other person to feel that they are being listened to.

You can comment on the non-verbal cues you’ve observed. I’ve found myself saying things like, “It sounds like you feel very strongly about this.” Or “I hear some doubt in your voice.” That tells the other person that you’re paying attention and that can help a lot!

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You can also make listening sounds. “U-huh” and “mmm” work as signals that you’re paying attention. But even better than that is to summarize what you heard. That will make them feel heard. This only works if you can do it without judging. Don’t add any commentary or do anything to put your own point of view in it. Your goal is to make them feel heard and understood. Then, ask if you got it right. If you didn’t, they will tell you how you got it wrong. So use those listening skills again and try to summarize again later. This is a special skill — one we all need to learn.

Often people who give advice about how to listen say to ask clarifying questions. I won’t go into those here but you can find an in-depth dive into how to ask questions in my newsletter from last week.

The next step is to find something you can affirm. The link to that newsletter is here.