By Elizabeth Clemants
Last week, after listening to a client tell me about the deep pain of her life, she said, “Your friends must be so lucky to have someone like you to listen to them.” Actually, I wish it worked out that way. Having a friend that listens for a living doesn’t always equate to having a lot of left over energy for listening to friends. My poor friends, I love you! When clients say that, I think what they really mean is: You are a good listener. You take time to see me.
Let’s talk about how we can listen like that. There are two types of listening – there are more, but let’s talk about these two. Filtered listening and Empathic listening. Filtered listening is what we are all great at – listening through our filters. Like it or not, we are always passing judgment on what we hear and see all the time. We naturally compare what someone is telling us or doing to what we know to be true from our experiences. We silently ask ourselves, is this Right or Wrong? Is this Good or Bad? Is this Safe or Unsafe? And our brain spits out an answer.
There is nothing wrong with filtered listening. In fact, it is how we categorize the world, and make sense of it, for ourselves. Our unique experience is developing as we move through life and it makes us who we are. It gives us the abilities that make up our unique set of skills and purpose. In fact, we do keep ourselves safe, on the right path, and feeling confident through our filtered listening. So it is a good thing, that we are all good at that level of listening.
But that isn’t what our friends want from us, or our family, or our colleagues, or our clients. They want empathy. They want a mirror held up so they can understand their own experiences better – and nothing will make that more convoluted or messy than adding your own filters into the mix while you are listening. When someone is telling us about their lives, what they really want is a reflection of how we see they feel. It shows them that they’re being heard and seen and cared about. And in most cases, when you’re talking to a friend, they want these things more than your judgment, sympathy or problem solving, even when these things come from the best place. Empathic listening starts with remembering that what someone is saying is about what they think or feel. It’s not about what you think or feel in that moment, or what you would feel if you were in that situation. And it’s not about what you think about that situation. It’s solely about them and their experience. Can you reflect the subjective experience that they seem to be having? That’s good listening.
Here’s how to do it. Start by putting yourself in their shoes. Listen to what seems to be going on for them. Begin your sentence with ‘it sounds like you feel ____’. You might be wrong, but if you stay open to getting it right, you will eventually be rewarded with the: “Yes! Thank you!” Then you can watch as they calm down, feel seen, understand themselves and the situation differently, let go, and move forward.
That’s a great friend.