In this world, we spend all our days talking with people. Our colleagues, our friends, our partners. Communication is our strongest tool for making connections and building our relationships, but it can also be one of the most difficult concepts to master. Feeling heard and understood is a vital need that we all share, and can shape how we interact with our world and deal with our emotions. In this article, I want to share with you what I call ‘the art of listening’, because listening is truly an artform, and I believe it can be the key to better relationships, and ultimately, a more fulfilling life.
Before we get into the heart of this, you might be wondering how listening to others can help you ‘feel heard’ or encourage others to listen to you. Not being able to get your point across, or feeling like you are being ignored is terribly damaging to relationships, especially the romantic kind. Often it leaves you feeling frustrated and alone. When this happens, its easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and succumb to a desperate need to be understood. We fight or bicker, maybe even get passive aggressive. In most situations, its important to take into account that your partner may be feeling the same way you are. Listening to your partners words, really listening, can help you see this bigger picture.
Maybe your family, friend or loved one is struggling to hear your troubles through the noise of their own stress and worry. Maybe they are interpreting your frustration as a lack of empathy towards what they are going through. Taking the time to explore all angles of a story with someone, will encourage them to do the same for you. Love and empathy will attract itself. When someone feels safe, understood and cared for, they feel a need to reciprocate these feelings. This is the beauty of human relationships, and sometimes it takes the strength to look past yourself for a moment. This is not to say that your needs are not important, but rather realizing that in order for your needs to be met, a person might want to feel that they are also being cared for. Cooperation, rather than compromise, is the key to promoting healthy relationships.
Putting this into practice can be difficult, especially during emotional or confronting conversations. As I mentioned before, listening is truly an artform, which is best learnt through practice and conscious attention. However, there are a few little tricks you can use along the way. As people, we often have a hard time getting our point across. We know what we want to say, but it gets lost and jumbled along the way. We say things we don’t mean, get preoccupied on tangents and distracted by responses. It might seam obvious, but the best thing to do is ask questions. If you really want to know what someone is thinking and feeling, ask questions until you are sure you have all the information. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to explain their thinking, or the reason for it. Allow them time to form their responses, rushing can cause miscommunication. When they are talking, try to consciously stop yourself from coming up with your next response. You have plenty of time for that once they have stopped speaking. In fact, pausing for a while after someone has finished their sentence can encourage them to add to what they have said. Generally, people will speak just to fill silence. Don’t be afraid to let the silence exist, some of us need a little time before we can bring the big issues into the light.
The true art of listening comes in the form of finding the emotions behind someone’s words. This is applied less to professional relationships, but is surprisingly often well used when dealing with strangers. When we communicate, we make judgements based on the words people say, and not the feelings behind them. We listen through a lens formed by our own life and experiences. Shifting that lens to incorporate the infinite number of experiences lived through by others is incredibly difficult yet very rewarding. An example I’m sure most of us can relate to, is when a stranger decides to open up to us about personal problems or hardships. For most of us, the immediate reaction is to feel uncomfortable. Perhaps you might even feel apathetic or critical. There is an interesting phenomenon where people will feel more comfortable sharing their emotional baggage with a near stranger than with people in their own social network. This might be in part due to anonymity, although others suggest it might have something to do with the human need to combat loneliness. Regardless, how you choose to handle these situations can affect how you see others in future. Rather than asking ‘why are they telling this to me’, try considering what is giving this person the need to confide in someone. Look deeper than the words. Find the emotions fueling the conversation. Apply this thinking to the rest of your relationships and you may understand yourself and others better.
Listening to others is the tool with which we build connections. Listening to yourself, is the foundation beneath the structures of all our relationships. If you are not confident in what you want and what you need, you cannot be confident that these needs are being met. This is more than understanding what you want from others, but rather knowing what you want from and for yourself. If you are struggling with a professional or career related relationship, it can help to analyze what you want from the situation. Do you want progression, do you feel stuck or stifled by your current position? Do you feel the opposite, perhaps overwhelmed or maybe even out of your depth? Exploring questions like these can reveal the underlying issue when talking about communication issues between people. It is the same with familial and romantic relationships. Listen to yourself first, find where you stand, then work to understand the people around you.
In conclusion, life is messy. People are confusing, difficult, beautifully messy creatures and our relationships reflect that. All we can really do to understand one another is to listen with empathy, compassion and patience. I hope these words can help you in your own journey for understanding, of yourself and those around you.