I was once told people on the autism spectrum (e.g. Asperger syndrome) were bad listeners because they struggle to recognize social cues and read facial expressions, but I have found that they can actually be superior at listening based on the mistakes I described last week. For instance, I recently met someone with bipolar disorder who’s dating a guy with mild autism and he’s amazing for her because he never takes anything she says personally. He essentially lets her have rage moments without being hurt or defending himself, which helps her feel safe and loved. He never looked for words to throw back in her face or assume she was trying to hurt him. She was just doing her thing and getting out her emotions. Thus, this was just someone I randomly met and not someone seeing me for marriage therapy, which is common for couples where one of them has bipolar disorder. His “disability” helped him be a great listener.
Last week I pointed out the five common mistakes people make when listening, but the question remains: How can we be a great listener? My definition of a great listener is someone who helps the other person feel heard and have his or her feelings validated. Thus, the one word to sum up good listening is agree. You don’t have to “agree” agree, but help the other people feel like you get them, and you don’t think they’re stupid. For instance, I’m a dedicated Christian, and when I talk with atheists I ask them about their beliefs and let them share while I “agree” (aka not correcting, debating, or scoffing) with them to help them feel heard and respected. Ultimately, I shouldn’t expect them to care about my beliefs if they don’t feel I care about theirs.
The following are the rules I try to follow in order to help people feel heard and understood.
- Ask Engaging Questions: For instance, a question like “What was the best part of your day,” gets the person thinking unlike “How are you?” which has an automatic answer of “Fine”.
- Make a Guess: For instance, “I’m guessing that really hurt,” and “Wow, that must have made you want to scream at that person.” This can validate a person or help them see they need to clarify their feelings.
- Ask Understanding Questions/Statements: For example: “Are you trying to say…?” or “So what you’re saying is…” so let me see if I’m hearing you right; you’re saying….” Asking, “What do you mean?” sounds snarky and never ends well.
- Offer Examples: Sometimes it can help if you offer an analogy that summarizes the person’s point: “So is that like…?”
- Call Back: In stand up comedy, a call back is referencing a joke you made earlier. In listening it’s similar because you reference something the person said earlier like “And this follows what you said earlier when you said…” or “Oh, and that’s why (thing) stood out to you.”
- ***(My favourite tool) “To Clarify… (and give 2 options with one being positive)”: Don’t ask someone “What do you mean?” because it makes them feel dumb and is making them do all the thinking. Instead, show you’re thinking by giving them an A or B option. For instance, “To clarify, are you trying to be funny or hurt me?” “To clarify, are you angry at me or the situation?” “To clarify, are you punishing me with silence or need time to process this?” “To clarify, are you trying to hurt me or am I misreading this?” and “To clarify, are you being sarcastic or did I hear that wrong?” The second option always needs to be positive or more about you having an issue and not something like “Are you stupid or just an idiot?”
- Repeat: Repeat back what people say whether paraphrased or with the same words they use.
- Mirror the Speaker: A person feels more connection when we try to have a similar energy, facial expression, and posture as he or she does. I once talked to a woman who spoke a language I didn’t know and helped her feel understood for 15 minutes as I simply followed her lead of smiling and laughing. I didn’t necessarily have fun, but I’m glad I could help her feel heard.
- Ask for a bathroom break or for 5 minutes to an hour when scared or getting too heated (i.e. Time out with a Time): Anger and fear make people dumb, so we need to take a break when things start to get ugly. Giving a time helps prevent the other person from feeling abandoned and helps limit him or her chasing you. If the other person tries to follow, be firm on needing your said time.
- One sentence summary: After someone rambles for a long time ask for a one sentence summary to prevent getting lost in the details with something like “So in one sentence what should I take from that?” or “So in one sentence what is the problem.” Every essay needs a thesis and every rant needs a point. This also helps the other person realize what they feel and really want to say.
- Half Listen (Don’t get lost in the details): Sometimes the worst thing we can do is fully listen. When people are upset they’re going to exaggerate and say things they don’t mean. In times like these you can pretty much ignore everything they say and simply throw in something like “That sucks,” “That’s terrible,” and “You must be really hurt,” and they’ll think you’re a great listener. Don’t get lost in the words; focus on validating the speaker.
- Avoid distractions: To listen better move so you can’t see a screen or your phone. You can actually say you need to move over because you want to listen better or ask for a second to put your phone away and the person will appreciate the gesture.
- Ask for a few minutes to finish something so you can better engage. This doesn’t mean “Can this wait until after the game?” because that makes people feel less important, but if I’m writing and need to finish a thought, I should ask my wife to wait a minute because otherwise I won’t be able to focus on her and, if this happens a lot, there’s a risk of me getting annoyed with her because it can feel like what I’m doing isn’t as important as her thing.
- Ask Permission to Give a Solution: Trying to fix the person’s problem often leads to the person feeling like you’re somehow superior, but if you feel it’s really important you offer a solution, after the person is done sharing ask: “Can I make a suggestion?” or “Can I give you something you may want to consider?” By asking permission the other person has the option to say no, and helps reduce them feeling put down for you having a potential solution.
Tip: Most people are naturally good listeners when they first start dating someone because they’re not worried about protecting themselves and they’re not blinded by baggage. If we want to help your spouse feel heard, you need to try to get back to the way you used to listen when you first met.
This week may you and your partner see how you can better listeners.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people