Let’s talk now about listening.
In previous columns, we’ve focused on the expression part of communicating. As a quick review, there are two fundamental parts of effective communication:
1) Expressing one’s observations, feelings, needs and requests honestly without judging, blaming or criticizing other, and
2) Listening for understanding to other’s observations, feelings, needs and requests without judging, blaming or criticizing.
Listening is a difficult activity to do well. We have distractions that never seem to end—telephones, television, radios, personal music devices, computers, deadlines, schedules, personal agendas and the list goes on and on.
The next layer of distraction is formed by our own experiences and beliefs. When we truly listen we have to push these distractions aside so that we can focus on the other person’s observations, feelings and needs without jumping to judge, blame or criticize.
When we get past all these distractions we find ourselves in the present moment and can focus body, heart and spirit on our communication.
To prepare myself to listen, I shift gears by imagining myself as a giant baseball mitt, ready and able to catch any message that comes my way. Fastballs, hard balls, fly balls, pop-ups. All kinds of messages, even those out of left field.
Across the palm of the mitt I envision, stamped in gold lettering, Ask Questions. The mitt has four words written by Sandy Koufax in black marker: observations, feelings, needs, requests.
This picture helps me remember the four keys to effective listening. It also helps me maintain a sense of humor when communication starts to pop.
The next step to effective listening, once the ball has been thrown, is to catch the message and wait. Our initial response many times is to offer advice or reassure the speaker. Marshal Rosenberg in Nonviolent Communication puts it this way from a Buddhist saying: Don’t just do something, stand there.
We need to give others the time and space to fully express themselves. But we need to stand there, open as a giant baseball mitt, even though we may be itching to offer advice, tell a story of how something even worse happened to us, lecture, make excuses for the speaker, dismiss the seriousness of the issue, give unwanted sympathy, start correcting, or questioning facts we don’t consider right.
See? Lots of distractions to effective listening.
As the messages are sent our way, they may come fast and hard, curved or wild. No matter what others say we need to stay open and listen for what the speaker is truly 1) observing, 2) feeling, 3) needing) and 4) requesting. Keep in mind what’s stamped and autographed on your mitt.
During effective listening the only communications you can send are questions to try to clarify your understanding of the speaker’s observations, feelings, needs and requests.
For example: Jimmy comes in and yells, “I’m so stupid!”
Time to mentally say STOP! and become the open baseball mitt. Ask questions to get more information.
“Jimmy, why would you say that?”
“Because, Dad, I left my bike outside last night and now it is gone.”
At this point our tendency as parents is to jump in and fix the problem (or the ten other things I mentioned earlier) instead of asking questions based on Jimmy’s observations, feelings, needs and requests.
“So, Jimmy, you’re feeling (you’re guessing here-guilty, overwhelmed, upset) that your bike is not where you left it?”
“Yeah, I just feel so stupid that I left it out and somebody stole it.”
Here, we need to keep asking questions until Jimmy makes a request, or we can ask, “How can I help?”
“So you think you couldn’t have left it someplace else, Jimmy?”
“Maybe I left it over at Tom’s. I’ll call and see. Thanks, Dad.”
By asking a few questions, and not saying things like, ‘Jimmy you’re not stupid”, or flying off the handle when we think the bike is stolen, Jimmy feels listened to and tries to solve his own problem.
Instead of trying to be Mr. or Ms. Fixit in your relationships, try being a catcher who can only ask questions regarding observations, feelings, needs and requests.
Listening with understanding and compassion is at the heart of our relationships.
Just don’t do something—stand there.