Thoughts on life, leadership and the movement called the church by Brian C. Hughes, Senior Pastor

by Brian C. Hughes, Senior Pastor

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Skill of Listening

Sunday, I talked about one of the most important teachings in the Bible: Listening.  I believe listening is a critical life skill that, sadly, is rarely formally taught.  Therefore, many people go through life perplexed at all of the difficulty people have communicating - at work, at home, in Washington.  The source of this trouble is often misdiagnosed, but it's really not that complicated:  People just don't listen.  It's not because they don't want to.  Instead, it's mostly that they just don't know how.

"My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry..." James 1:19, NIV

If you weren't at PCC on Sunday, I would highly recommend that you watch or listen to the message.

I heard from folks that they took my advice, went home and turned off phones.  Couples asked each other, "Do you feel like I understand you?"  I'm confident those were productive conversations.  But there is more to say about listening, so I wanted to provide some additional training for those brave enough to really work at this skill.

Empathic Listening is the practice of listening for feelings and reflecting them with words.
You may have heard of reflective listening.  Empathic listening is different.  When you are reflecting, you simply repeat back the words you hear.  "I had a bad day," she says.  You reflect, "So, what you're saying is that you had a bad day?"

Sometimes, in very tense, highly charged conversations, we have to resort to reflective listening.  Do this when there is a total, complete breakdown in communication.  But normally, this is a little insulting.  In the conversation above, she would reply, "I just said that!  Are you mocking me?"

Empathic listens with the eyes, as well as the ears.  It seeks out the underlying feeling behind the words. "I had a bad day," she says.  You see that her shoulders sag, her eyes stay on the floor, she falls onto the couch and puts her hand on her head.  You respond, "You seem exhausted."  or maybe "You must be frustrated"  or angry or upset or 'at the end of your rope' or whatever you sense is the feeling underneath of her words.

Here's the key:  When you reflect the feeling you think they have, they will respond in one of two ways:  Yes or No.  They will either confirm what you said, "I am exhausted.  I'm just so tired of working these long days."  Or, they will correct what you said, "No, I'm not so much exhausted as I am just frustrated.  I mean, I love what I do, but my boss is just so hard to get along with!"  Do you see?  They might say that they are tired, but what's behind it could be a frustration with a person or a particular event or whatever.

Every time the person who's talking says something - or even when they don't say something - I'm going to reflect their feeling, as I perceive it. And they will either confirm or correct the feeling I named.

And here's the good part:  They will usually add to it, giving you a slightly deeper layer to their feelings.  If you do this well, they will usually take you on a journey, and you'll find the end of it often being a place that is completely different than where the conversation started.  Here's a hypothetical situation that could have gone ballistic, but because she listens well, the bomb is diffused and the heart of the issue is mutually discovered:

Bob storms into the house:  I cannot believe that I had to move the bike out of the driveway AGAIN!!!

Kim:  I know you're frustrated.  [Note that Kim doesn't say that she'll call the kids and lecture them and she doesn't say, 'well, boys will be boys' and she doesn't say, 'what's the big deal?'  She simply reflects his feeling.]

Bob:  I've asked him over and over again not to do that!

Kim:  You feel like he doesn't listen to you.

Bob:  He doesn't listen to me!  It's almost like he ignores me.  But I'm his Dad, and he just cannot ignore what I tell him to do!

Kim:  He doesn't respect you.  [she says this not as a statement of fact, but just giving air to Bob's feelings, as he expresses them.]

Bob:  That's right. He doesn't.  I don't know...I've yelled and yelled about this.  Maybe I'm just not spending enough time with him.  I've been working so much and I feel like the only time I see our son is when I'm reprimanding him. 

Kim:  You feel like a bad parent.

Bob:  No, I feel like I've turned into my father - and I swore that would never happen!  I promised I would be better, spend real time, have real conversations and a real relationship.  But the truth is, none of that has happened.  

Kim:  You think you are failing him as a father.

Bob:  I do.  Something has to change....

Certainly, kids should do what they are told and not leave bikes in the driveway.  However, that wasn't the real issue.  Bob wanted to talk about something else, even though he didn't know it or couldn't articulate it.  Because Kim cared enough to  listen empathically, Bob was able to flesh out the root of his frustration, which wasn't his was Bob himself.

You may say, "This is not realistic.  Nobody has conversations like this!"  But I've seen and been a part of this kind of conversation many, many times.  Healthy people with healthy relationships DO talk like this, especially when there is clearly an emotional response underneath of the words being spoken.

The rule here is 'Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood."

So, when you are the listener, don't make it about you.  Don't fix it, explain it, correct it or even analyze it.  You're simply trying to get to the feeling that the other person has and name it.  When you do that, it gives them relational oxygen, and it shows how much you care about them.

This is especially helpful when someone is upset with YOU.  You feel defensive and want to correct the allegation, but when we come back with our response, we're not listening.  Someone has to listen.

Once you think you're at the core issue, sum it up like this (going back to the conversation with Bob and Kim)

Kim:  It seems like the real issue for you is not the bike or our son, but that you are frustrated with yourself as a parent.  Do I have it right?

At this, Bob will either say, "Yes, that's it" or "No...", but then he'll correct again.  You keep going until your summary produces a "That's it.  You've got it"  response.  And then, you get to speak about you, your perspective.  I usually begin with an expression of regret, sorrow or apology (whichever is appropriate).  "I'm so sorry.  I know you wanted your relationship with our son to be different."  But then, you get to add your thoughts and ideas.  You understood Bob, now it's your turn to be understood.  So, you can say, "I have some thoughts on some things we could do that might turn this around, if you're open to hearing them."

Do you think Bob will be open?  Almost 100% of the time, he will. Why?  Because you cared enough to listen - really listen - you earned the right to speak into the situation.

If you will practice this, intentionally, and tell people around you that you are trying to get better at it, you will find that your skill level increases rapidly, and your relationships change and improve.

If you want to learn more about this, I recommend The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey.  Habit Five is his training on listening.  The entire book, though, has been formative for me, and I listen to the entire audio version of the book every year as a part of my personal growth plan.

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