The Choice to Listen

im-not-listeningUnfortunately, this resembled the scene over breakfast at my house this week, waaayyyy before coffee had kicked in.

Pavini: I need to say something, and I want to ask that you just hold it and not react.  It’s about me, and not about you, or you doing or not doing anything.

Pavini’s partner: uhhhh…okay.

Pavini: I am feeling controlling about the website.

Pavini’s partner: Oh, no big deal.  You can do the website.

Pavini: That is exactly what I did NOT want you to say!!

In the above interaction, I felt angry and triggered after my partner responded that I could do the website.  I did not WANT to do the website, and merely naming my feelings was super vulnerable.   I tried to take care of myself, by front-loading the situation and trying to ask for what I needed.  It didn’t work, and in fact I got the opposite of what I had wanted. Clearly, a communication fail.

Talking about the situation later, my partner told me that when I asked him to hold what I was about to say without reacting, he felt a great deal of nervousness and anticipation.  When I actually said the thing, he felt relief.  He then wanted me to feel better, and he assumed that I would since he was feeling relieved that I hadn’t told him something heinous over oatmeal.

Unfortunately, in conveying his relief, I experienced his communication as minimization of my own feeling.

What would have been helpful in this situation would be for him to have said something like “Do you want to say more?” or “Is there something you need around that?” You know, therapist speak.

There are times when we just need to say something and have it witnessed and held well.  Sometimes, that is all we need.  No one needs to respond, judge, fix, or filter it through their own experience.  Empathic listening is the technique when a listener stays present and attuned, without doing anything else.    

In working with couples and in my own couples therapy, I have often noticed that while someone may be fluent in communicating their own feelings, it can be super challenging  to just LISTEN to the feelings of their partner.  There is a conflation of listening with agreement.  Meaning, if I listen deeply to what my partner is saying, that means I agree with it.

However, I’ve learned that it is possible to listen to what a partner is saying, and try to hear and understand, without agreeing at all. In order to be able to truly hear, we can disagreement to the side, and promise to come back for it in a little bit.  When I listen from a place that is beyond agreement or disagreement, my communications often go much more smoothly.

Here are some different types of listening I’ve been researching:

Active: Listening in a way that demonstrates interest and encourages continued speaking.

Appreciative: Listening to something for pleasure, like spoken word poetry

Attentive: Fully engaged with what the speaker is saying, demonstrating attentive body language and inserting appropriate social markers of listening.

Biased: Listening through the filter of personal bias or belief. This short clip gives more info

Casual: Listening without obviously showing attention. Actual attention may vary a lot.

Comprehension: Listening to understand meaning

Critical/judgmental/evaluative: Listening in order to evaluate, criticize or otherwise pass judgment on what someone else says.  This can include listening to rebut listening with the intention of finding fault, to rebut, or to compare with ourselves.

Empathic: Listening from the heart, listening for feelings. Maintaining awareness of one’s own self, while opening to the feeling state of the speaker.

Reflective: Listening in order to understand, and then saying back to someone what you have heard them say, while clarifying for your own understanding.

Sympathetic: Listening with concern for the well-being of the speaker. Often paired with the communicationchoice to express one feelings or offer advice.

Therapeutic: Listening with empathy to help the speaker to understand their own feelings and thoughts.

My partner and I resolved our conflict. The next time I need to speak something aloud and only have it witnessed,  I will make the choice as the speaker to ask him to listen with empathy.  That gives him clear information in making his choice as a listener. 

As listeners, we have lots of choices.  We can choose what type of listening we are doing.  We can choose how our body language reflects what we are doing. We can be thinking about what we will say next, and zoning out to the speaker.  We can be thinking about how what the speaker is saying relates to us or our experience. We can be thinking about how to fix or solve or advise the speaker.  Or we can choose to simply be present and engaged, setting down as many of our filters as we can.