Today, I was thinking about listening. I belong to an online support community in which you can post to vent, receive advice, support, provide help for others, whatever you need. It’s a wonderful safe place where you can remain completely anonymous if you choose. However, I’ve noticed that oftentimes people will post to the forum, wanting support, and in return will receive long personal stories from other users that detract from their original post and do not answer the call for support.
I believe the tendency to relate to others through one’s personal experiences is well meaning and a genuine attempt to understand where the other person is coming from. Unfortunately, this can leave the person seeking support feeling dismissed, forgotten and invisible. When I was a little girl, I remember trying time and time again to tell my mom how scared I was of my nightmares. She would remind me my dad and she were right next door and that they wouldn’t let anything happen to me. Needless to say, this did NOT make me feel better.
If she had listened, my mom might have learned what my dreams were about and why they frightened me so. But neither my mom nor my dad were adept at listening. This lack of visibility and recognition contributed to a sense of worthlessness that plagued me my whole life. This may seem an extreme example but not so extreme if we think about the consequences of disregarding others on a larger scale. We can disregard others to the point of neglecting their needs completely or harming them when they’re asking us to stop.
Truly listening to another person means not only hearing their words but deriving meaning from them and responding compassionately. If someone confides a problem in us but does not ask for advice, how will they feel when we give them our opinion on what we think they should do? It can be difficult to feel “helpful” when we’re not doing anything. However, compassionately listening to another person’s story is doing quite a lot. We affirm their experience as being real and important and when we reflect their feelings, we affirm their importance and validity as well. We do not have to agree with them but listening is not about right or wrong, it’s an affirmation of our value as human beings.
How do we become better listeners? I watched a wonderful TED talk on listening by Julian Treasure in which he outlines a simple acronym to help us remember how to listen–RASA.
R stands for “Receive” or tune-in to what the person is trying to communicate.
A stands for “Appreciate” by making sounds to show you have received the message and understand it’s meaning (Mhm, Oh, I see).
S stands for “Summarize.” This is the time for you to reflect back what you’ve heard and show you understand (So, …).
A stands for “Ask” which allows you to move the conversation forward or clarify anything you had questions about.
I’d like to add that while “What,” “Who,” “Where,” and “How” questions can be helpful, “Why?” can sound quite judgmental. Think back to the last time somebody said to you, “Why would you do that?”
Improving my own listening skills has added tremendously to my life. I feel much more helpful than I ever did when I would try to problem-solve for people who needed my support. It also takes a tremendous amount of pressure off of me to relinquish the need to “help out” when someone is expressing their feelings to me. I have begun to break free of the old transactional (I scratch your back, you scratch mine) mode of relating to people that was so toxic and hurtful in my childhood. This will allow me to form more meaningful and caring relationships with others.
The needs to feel visible, important and understood are in all of us. One of the simplest ways to validate another person is to listen to them. When we feel acknowledged and affirmed we are more apt to treat others the same way. By making this small change in ourselves, we can have a huge ripple effect on the world. I encourage you, the next time you get the chance, to try out these ideas and just see what happens!
Thank you for listening.