By Judy K. Underwood, Ph.D.
Stressed about money this season? Who isn’t? Ordinary Americans haven’t faced an economic downturn for many years. Accustomed to enjoying plenty, abundance and sharing during the holiday season has been the norm. However, people’s spending habits are changing, and they are turning to other gifting options.
The nonprofit StoryCorps, which is dedicated to preserving oral history, recently invented a neat gift idea—the gift of listening. In designating November 28 as the National Day of Listening, they hope to encourage people to start listening to others more closely. They want to encourage families to start a new Thanksgiving holiday tradition by setting aside one hour to record a conversation with someone important in their lives, from an older relative to a teacher to a familiar friend in the neighborhood.
With television so dominant in people’s households, little real listening goes on these days. Plus, we’ve gotten into the bad habit of listening only to ourselves. Rather than listening to what others have to say, people think about what to say next, especially during disagreements. As a result, both people feel unheard, and conflict ensues.
Consider implementing these five steps to active listening in your life. It could be your most significant gift to another person.
- Set the scene. Be sure that you are both in a comfortable place where you won’t be interrupted. Turn off your cell phones and make sure children are occupied. Set a time frame. It can be open ended, during a meal or while taking a walk. Set your intention to listen carefully and hear what the other person means.
- Give your full attention. It’s helpful to look at the other person.
- Say that you want to understand. “Susan, I know that you’ve been upset about X for a long time, and I’d like to hear your thoughts.”
- Paraphrase what you hear. After Susan begins to speak, let her talk until she finishes her thought. Then, pause, and say, “I think you’re telling me that you are torn between X and Y, and don’t know what’s best.”
- Ask for feedback. “Did I understand what you’ve said?” Listen intently to her response. If she says, “Yes that’s right, but there’s more. I also feel like … ,” you are on the right track. Just keep this up.
When using active listening, avoid two things:
Do not multi-task. When you don’t give the other person your full attention, you are giving the message that she or he is not important to you. Giving your full attention is a way to say, “I care about you.”
Do not get defensive. Defensiveness will make things worse – even when you feel criticized or when you think the other person is wrong. If you feel defensive, you can say, “I’m feeling defensive, and I don’t want to respond that way. Let me make sure I understand what you’re saying.” Then paraphrase what you heard. Remember that in relationships it’s more important to be kind than to be right.
Active listening can improve relationships. Take turns listening to the other person. By giving each other airtime without inserting your own point of view, you can change things dramatically. You don’t need to fix anything or come up with a solution. Just listen.
This year, give the gift of listening, and let me know what happens.
Judy K. Underwood, Ph.D. is a Fort Collins psychotherapist, life coach, speaker and author. She is the author of “Dying: Finding Comfort and Guidance in a Story of a Peaceful Passing.” She can be reached at DrUnderwood@passingpeacefully.com or (970) 221-0581. Visit her website www.passingpeacefully.com.