Listening to another's difficulties can be a joyful heart connected experience. When someone is sharing a difficulty with you, you don't always know what they are wanting back from you. Without knowing what they want, you likely do what you usually do depending on your habit. This may not match what's wanted and trigger disconnect or impatience. Or perhaps your habit involves taking responsibility for the other person, and listening becomes a burdensome job.
When you can choose to focus on what's happening for the other person without trying to fix or change their experience, listening opens the door to shared humanity and connection. Most of the time when someone is sharing a difficulty with you all they want is to be heard.
In Wise Heart workshops we often do an exercise in which one person speaks for three minutes about some difficulty or positive event, while the other person listens silently. At the end of the three minutes the listener uses the list of feelings and universal needs to make guesses about the feelings and needs that might be up for the speaker using the phrase: "Do you feel________because you need (or because you value) ______?"
Again and again the responses to this exercise are the same. The person who was heard says:
"I was surprised how good it felt to be heard."
"I was so relieved to speak knowing I wouldn't get advice."
"Just having the space of three minutes without interruption, I got insight into my situation."
"After being heard, I could let go of the situation."
The listeners in this exercise typically express the following:
"All this time, I thought listening meant trying to solve their problem."
"I noticed how often I wanted to give advice."
"I kept feeling responsible, like I had to meet his needs."
"I didn't want to see her in pain. It was hard not to jump and say everything would be okay." "I was surprised to hear what feelings and needs were present. I thought I knew, but those were just my assumptions."
The listerner's responses to the exercise reflect the habits of listening a lot of us grew up with. They are not so easy to change. On the other hand, they aren't helpful when they are misattuned. Cultivating the habit of asking the other person what kind of listening they want can help you to attune and connect without having to rely on assumptions and habits. Here are some cues that it's time to check with what the other person wants:
- You start to feel restless or resentful as you're listening.
- You head starts aching with all the analysis and problem solving you're doing.
- You start to offer advice and the other person looks dejected.
- You reach out to console with a hug and the other person pulls away.
- You feel tired and disconnected as the other is talking.
Here are some ways you could ask the other person what they want from you as they share:
"Just to be clear, are you needing to be heard or are you wanting advice?"
"I want to hear you and I am starting to go fuzzy. Can you tell me what you are wanting back from me in telling me this?"
"Would it help to have me say back what I am understanding you to say so far?"
"I notice I want to problem solve. Is that what you are looking for?"
This week practice asking the other person what they want from you at least once. Remind yourself as you connect to feelings and needs that you are not responsible for meeting them. Let yourself enjoy listening from the heart.