By Alan Koenigsberg, M.D.
Last time I discussed taking care of yourself during these extraordinarily stressful times. Today, I would like to discuss the art and technique of listening.
Most of us have been listening to others from childhood. We learned to speak by listening to our parents. We learned the innate grammar by listening, without reading grammar books.
We learned nuances of meaning by listening and correlating body language with the spoken words to more fully understand the unspoken communication.
We did all this without any formal training in listening.
However, how many of us have experienced talking about something troubling to a family member or close friend, only to have them begin to talk about their misfortune?
Or have them compare our concerns to theirs?
Or try to put it all into perspective?
Or give advice?
Although meaning well, most of us don’t really know how to actively listen. Do we strive to understand what the other person is saying, learn where they are coming from and empathize?
I suggest we all practice listening actively, without judging, without giving advice. Rather, hear what the other person is saying as a means of them letting you into their world. Getting to know them.
Even if they seem to present a conflict, let them talk it through without giving suggestions, at first. Give them some space to try to work it out themselves.
We all appreciate help and advice, but we all also derive pride in solving dilemmas ourselves, when possible. Let the other person stew a bit, perhaps give them cues or clues as to how they may proceed, but refrain from giving concrete solutions.
Another point to consider is that many times, the other person is struggling with additional agendas that we may not be aware of. They may present a seemingly simple, straightforward conflict and we are sorely tempted to provide the obvious solution.
Please hold your tongue in these situations when possible.
If the solution is obvious to you, it’s probably obvious to the other person also and there is most likely something else going on.
Most people are not struggling because of a lack of data or information. There is often an emotional conflict, anxiety, fear or some other element that factors into their problem.
Sometimes, the other person may be unwittingly drawing you into a no-win solution and wanting you to also experience their frustrations.
You don’t need to be a psychiatrist or psychotherapist to learn how to listen better. It just takes willingness and practice.
One technique is to check with the other person by repeating back to them what you think you heard them say. I have found so often that the words may be close, but the meanings are very different.
With practice, feedback and some patience, you may find you become a better listener, your family and friends find themselves becoming closer to you and you develop deeper, more meaningful relationships.
Alan Koenigsberg, M.D., is a practicing psychiatrist and clinical professor of psychiatry at UTSW Medical School in Dallas. He can be reached at email@example.com.