Learning to Listen
Reflective Listening and Understanding
by: Sherika Tenaya
As human beings, we are driven by an innate need to connect to one another. Whether we are spouses, lovers, friends, siblings, parents, children or business partners, our lives are oftentimes framed around the connections we share with those we love.
These connections are what make our lives both enriching when we find our relationships in balance, and aggravating when we inevitably find ourselves embroiled in the flip side of connection: conflict. Whether its arguments on social media websites, terse conversations about politics, uncomfortable family reunions, regrettably incompatible parenting styles or a boardroom decision hopelessly stale-mated - the opportunity to swim through a sea of discordant human philosophy, values and opinions abounds.
Conflict is indeed inevitable; but broken family ties, schisms between business partners and reckless “unfriending” on social media is not. It all comes down to communication and how we go about resolving our differences.
The problem is, we live in a culture where we are taught that, in a disagreement, one person is right and the other person is wrong. One viewpoint is valid and the other viewpoint isn’t. Someone “wins” and the other “loses”. And it is because of this pervasive sense of me vs. you that so many of our valuable connections are irreversibly broken. And once that happens, being right and “winning” an argument suddenly doesn’t feel so rewarding.
Marcia Berger illuminates the consequences of this line of thinking in her thought provoking article when she asks, “When you disagree with someone about something you feel strongly about, do you promptly move into high persuasion gear to try to get that person to see it your way? Doing this creates both emotional distance between the two people and it also closes off the possibility of learning something new.”
The fact of the matter is, on any given issue, there is more than one way to look at things and you have a very real chance of learning an unexpected lesson from the other person, whether you agree with them or not. There is an entire spectrum of perspectives that we, as people, hold onto based on our upbringing, ingrained belief systems, past experiences and present agenda. Having the maturity to listen outside of ourselves and learn from another person can only further our own growth.
Each of us is entitled to our opinion and each of us are entitled to expressing that opinion respectfully. And if we are connected to one another in love or friendship, shouldn’t we at least make room in our relationships to be heard, even if we don’t agree?
Sometimes, simply being heard is enough. And while you may never agree with what the other person thinks or feels, if you can understand where they are coming from without the intention to care-take, problem solve or “fix” them, you might find that your connection extends beyond the mundane philosophical differences you hold on the issue du jour and instead provides a foundation of mutual understanding upon which a true, enduring love can last.
And yet, when emotions are boiling and fundamental core values are being questioned and even ridiculed, how can we create a space with our loved one where we can be heard and also find a way to hear them? Where we can be different, but still understand and acknowledge each others’ views?
For that, the method of Reflective Listening creates just such a space and is as follows:
- Two people having a conflict sit side by side. One person agrees to be the speaker and the other agrees to listen. Sitting side by side allows freedom for both parties - the speaker is freed from making eye contact with the listener and the listener is freed from nodding, approving, agreeing, etc - they are completely free to listen.
- For 10 to 15 minutes the speaker, perhaps with eyes closed, allows their words to flow in a stream of consciousness from their heart, stating their viewpoint without interruption. It is ideal to keep the timing of the thought flow to ten or fifteen minutes so that the listener can fully absorb the viewpoint of the speaker without getting overwhelmed with information.
- The listener remains silent, listening for content as well as the meaning and feeling behind the speaker’s communication.
- When the speaker is finished, they announce they are complete.
- The listener then begins to reflect back to the speaker what they said beginning with the statement “What I heard you say was….”, being careful to capture the feeling and meaning of the speaker’s words, rather than acting like a tape recorder or parrot and repeating verbatim what the speaker said. The goal is for the listener to communicate that they not only heard what the speaker was saying, but that they understand with compassion.
- When the listener is done reflecting back the speaker’s words, the listener says “Did I hear you accurately?”
- The speaker either replies with a yes or no, depending on if they feel the listener truly grasped their meaning. If the answer is yes, then the two partners exchange roles. If the answer is no, the process is repeated until the listener has reflected accurately enough that the speaker feels heard.
Reflective Listening is a powerful practice, but not an easy one. Sometimes the cycle continues with the same speaker for several rounds.
And yet, if both partners can remain calm and present, engaging their self control to maintain their role as speaker or listener in the exercise, the benefits are immense. Aruni Futuronsky of the world renowned Kripalu Center enumerates the benefits when she says, “Without comments from another, even well-intended ones, a speaker opens into a fuller range of expression. The listener is freed up to be present, rather than calculating a response. By being present in the moment during communication, deeper connectivity can be reached.”
The point of this practice isn’t to reach an agreement. Its for the speaker to fully express themselves and the listener to play the role of witness to the speaker’s experience alongside them. Dr. Athena Straik succinctly describes the objective of this practice in her deeply evocative article on conscious listening, “To focus on understanding the heart of what the other says, such as their positive intentions, not just their words; to be willing to let go of and suspend judgments or doubts; to practice listening objectively for feelings, emotion-drives, positive intentions, as well as for layers of feelings and drives beneath the feelings, i.e., unfulfilled expectations, wishes, etc.”
To understand another’s heart is the first step to having a very real, sustainable lifelong bond. To be able to fully express oneself in an authentic way is pivotal in keeping such a bond nourished through a lifetime’s worth of changes.
This is the work of unconditional love, a phrase that is bandied about in our culture a great deal but is rarely acknowledged for the effort, will and emotional maturity that goes into cultivating it. By demonstrating to our loved ones that we care enough to truly listen to them, to who they are, we are our own examples of unconditional love, and that is a reward far greater than a momentary feeling of being right.