Enhancing your ability to actively listen
Through your increasing opportunities to listen actively, you will begin to notice the difference your attention is making to those who are speaking. They seem to be relaxing easily, opening their posture, settling in, and maybe even smiling a lot. As they quieten themselves, the quality of their thinking is improving, they are opening up with their feelings, they may get emotional, and they start to share more deeply what is going on for them. It may seem as if by magic, they start sharing stories that they have not shared before or even knew that they knew. Things start to make sense for them, all by themselves.
So, what can you do as the listener to make this a fulfilling experience for them?
One question I get asked a lot is, “How can I get present with the speaker again when my thoughts distract me?”
A big part of active listening is stilling and quietening ourselves such that we can see and hear the speaker. This way of being evokes our other senses too. We have a feeling of being fully present. The speaker will feel this too. Think about how you feel when you are speaking, and someone is actively listening to you.
The speaker then says something, like the name of a film or place you recognise, an experience, such as redundancy, divorce, a new job, a marriage or a birth, etc., and before you know it you are reliving you own version of these moments or experiences. You have been triggered and you have stopped listening. Not only are you somewhere else now, but also your whole being wants to interrupt and tell them your story, or your experience. The good news is that you have noticed your thoughts.
There are many things you can do. One of them is to re-focus on their face and notice all of it, their eyes, their hair, their mouth, and their expressions.
Another is to breathe. Of course, you are already breathing but now focus on your breath. Focus on breathing in deeply, notice how your belly fills up, hold it for a moment, then let it slowly out, noticing the belly deflating and the breath moving out of your nose. Do this a few times and you will quickly return to the speaker.
If you feel you have missed something, gently explain to them that you were distracted momentarily and ask them to repeat what they had said. Be mindful how you do this, as you will interrupt their flow, so do so with care.
Eye contact and body language
How can we tell that we are being heard? Sometimes we feel it, deep inside. Other times it is an accumulation of what the listener is quietly and calmly being. I say being, because it is easy to copy these two aspects of listening and do them. “The fake it until you make it”, does not apply here, as the speaker will feel your inauthenticity.
If you genuinely intend to listen, looking the speaker in the eyes with a soft gaze, (this is not a starring contest), have an open posture, and lean forwards towards them.
Eye contact is probably the best way to keep yourself connected and for them to feel heard. Particularly when they go quiet and go away to think, (they stop looking at you and look elsewhere, or get up and walk around, to facilitate their deeper thinking), keep looking at them and their eyes.
When they return to you, their thinking and flow will not be disturbed or disturbed. Should they return to you and find you looking elsewhere, at your watch, making notes or checking your mobile, their thinking and flow will abruptly stop. They will wonder what you are doing. If you notice that they have noticed and you try to recover by saying, “Sorry about that, please carry on”, it is most likely that this wave of thinking has gone, and it will be very difficult to get back. Likened to trying to remember a dream, the more you try, the quicker it disappears.
You can help the situation by offering a word or two that they had said moments before. If you do so, offer the words and then stay quiet. Leave it to them to recover, if there can do so.
Which leads nicely into silence
Silence is a special aspect of listening and is as impactful as eye contact. These are deeply reassuring ways of being present to the speaker.
In some ways, silence is like a superpower, yet that sounds counter-intuitive as it looks like you are doing nothing. The reality is that when the listener remains silent it encourages the speaker to calm down, even more, to think for themselves and to continue speaking.
We are so used to being interrupted, people not letting us finish and not allowing us to think, that we speak quickly, run sentences into the next, and not pause long enough for someone else to get a word in and take over the conversation. Even as I write this, it feels so wrong.
As this is unusual the speaker may go quiet for what could be too long a time, and is maybe struggling with the silence, a question, such as “What more?” will be helpful and much appreciated. Once asked, return to silence again. Before you speak, take one full breath in and out.
So, for a speaker to be on the receiving end of silence can take some getting used to. They almost start anticipating when you will interrupt. The feeling of being heard fully and deeply is a joy. It feels liberating, validating, and we get a knowing that our words and us as a human being matters greatly.
Here is the eighth in a series of brief blogs introducing The Relationship Journey in my chapter on Active Listening from The Journey Inside. Today is all about Connection.