A Therapist Explains How To *Really* Listen To Another Human Being

Life & Culture Editor
03.08.17 2 Comments

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Let’s face it: Most people aren’t good listeners. In fact, most people — including your best friend who truly loves you to the moon and back — are terrible listeners. But it’s not their fault. No one (well, very few people) are out here trying to ignore your important thoughts and problems. They want to help, but listening is hard.

So, what’s the issue? Well, first off, no one actually teaches us how to listen to others. And, second, when we are taught about listening, it’s often presented as a passive skill, something that you do while allowing your eyes to glaze over and your mind drift off until you have an opportunity to speak again. And if that sounds like you — even a little bit — you’re not alone. Right now, people all over the world are feeling not listened to while their friends, parents, significant others, and all other manner of acquaintances are sitting there wondering “what the hell?”

Don’t beat yourself up over past mistakes, though. All you need to know is this: Like any other skill, listening well takes time and practice. And in order to help you communicate better, we enlisted the help of Vanessa Marin, a licensed psychotherapist who’s seen just about everything (check out her previous conversations with us here and here) to give us a primer on how to stop just hearing and start really learning how to buckle down and listen to the people in your life.

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Here’s the thing: bad listeners — those who just want to jump into the conversation as soon as a moment presents itself — aren’t typically trying to one-up or hurt the people they’re speaking with. “One of the communication patterns I’ve seen most frequently, in the US in particular, is that we’re all really quick to want to help another person, and think that we understand them,” Marin says.

While this doesn’t sound at all bad (who doesn’t want to be understood?) Marin points out that the problem arises when we’re in such a rush to connect with another person — to show the that we “get it” — that we stop paying attention and jump right into reciprocal sharing; that is, we start describing an experience we’ve had that’s parallel to the one that’s being discussed, as an attempt to show understanding.

“We can be so desperate to get to that moment of connection that we often end up cutting the other person off prematurely,” Marin adds. “I see a lot of jumping to conclusions; or the speaker is halfway through the sentence, and you’re like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, I got it, I got it, I know where you’re going already.'”

The problem? You usually don’t now where the other person is going. And even if you do, the jumping in will often feel like an interruption rather than a genuine moment in which you and the speaker truly feel each other.

“Slow down, and really let the person get their full thought out before responding,” Marin says. “Often, when we think we’re listening, what we’re actually doing is planning our response. You can’t do both of those things at the same time. It just occupies too much brain space.” That means you may think you’re listening (and your intentions could be 110 percent pure) but you’re actually doing a pretty crappy job of it.

Is there an easy fix to this? Yep, but you’re going to have to be more mindful of how you communicate. First, slow down and stop thinking about your responses while you’re listening. Your goal isn’t to force a connection or help someone — that comes later — but to show the person that what they’re saying is important. So allow yourself to chill out, focus on the other person, and then ask questions instead of jumping in with your own personal experience.

“You don’t have to get to that place of ‘I get it,’” so quickly,” Marin says. “It’s okay to have a little uncertainty.”

“Really be thoughtful about letting the person finish their full sentence,” Marin adds, “and maybe even let there be a little bit of an awkward pause at the end, just so you can fully make sure that they’re saying what it is they needed to say. If you’ve interrupted somebody, that’s a tell-tale sign that you’re not doing a good job of listening, you’re jumping ahead a little too much.”

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