Communicating effectively: be a good listener
What about the situation in which you are trying to help someone through a difficult time and you really don’t care about the specifics? You simply want to be a good listener to help the person “talk it out.” You’re interested in helping them to understand how they’re feeling and what they can do to deal with the crisis. Here are some things you can do to be a good listener.
Effective communication is one of the keys to building resilience and maintaining balance in your life. Communication is the foundation upon which we build our lives. It is the way in which we understand others and the way in which we attempt to get other people to understand and know us. If we do not communicate clearly and directly with others, we will not understand and we will not be understood.
Many of the situations that we deal with on a daily basis are complicated. Very few are black and white. The other person usually has their side of things, their story, and their way of looking at things. If we don’t take time to really understand what they are saying or how they see things, we usually are not going to be very effective in dealing with them or with any problems that arise in our relationships with them. There are very few pat solutions that one can simply apply to a problem. We need to understand what we are confronting and the only way that we are going to do that is by effectively communicating with those around us.
For many of you the skills that are presented below are ones that you make use of each day in your work. They are basic “interviewing” skills. Unfortunately, many of us put these skills away when we leave work and do not apply them to the world outside of work. In particular, we may not listen well. We may be tired of listening. We have been listening to people all day. But if we are going to find a solution to the problems that we are dealing with, either at work or at home, we have to talk and we have to listen in order to find out what is happening.
Encouraging people to talk: basic communication skills
If people are to talk with you and share information, especially if they are to say things that may be difficult to say, they need to know that they are connecting with you. They need encouragement! If you meet their attempts to communicate with silence, or if you assume the attitude of an interrogator, you will not put other people at ease and you will not encourage them to tell you what you need to know.
To be effective in understanding another’s perspective, you need to do things which show interest and genuine concern. Here are some examples you can use to encourage other people to talk, especially in a crisis when people are upset and angry:
Use neutral expressions, such as, “I see,” “Go on,” “I understand,” “Yes”.
Nod your head or smile.
Try “echoing” or slightly rephrasing what the person has said, for example: You are talking with your best friend about his wife, and he says, “I feel she’s changed a lot!” You might say, “Changed?” It is very important to avoid trying to give advice to people at this point. Your advice is not going to be very good since you really don’t understand what is going on. Avoid being the cross-examiner or the fault-finder or focusing on trivialities. Keep the conversation focused on present issues, the things that can be resolved.
Ask good questions of people. Unfortunately, people often don’t know how to ask good questions. When we’re talking with someone, we need to ask open-ended questions that encourage them to talk. For example: “What happened?” or “What are you going to do now?” But very often we ask questions that have yes or no answers that don’t encourage discussion or we ask people “why” questions. Unfortunately, when we ask “why” questions, we are often encouraging people to become defensive and to try to come up with some reason to justify their behavior. The reality may be that they simply don’t know why. We could spend the rest of the conversation talking about “why” when “why” really isn’t that important and is not going to lead us to a solution to the problem.
Get down to the details. If you are trying to find out what is happening, be specific. One of the major blocks to communicating in a crisis is the inability of people to describe exactly what was said or done by another person. Being able to accurately describe what happened is often essential to being able to understand a very tense and complex situation. Being specific requires that you focus on observable actions of others without making value judgments or interpretations of what they meant. As a society, we love to talk in generalities. We often accuse people of behaving in a certain way because of a motive or a value that we believe is hidden behind their behavior. It can be important to look at people’s motives, but at this point in the process, that is not your goal. Your goal is to try to understand what is happening and what people did and said. A frequent mistake made in dealing with a crisis situation is our tendency to react to the accusations or generalizations that others may make or to the interpretations that others may add to another person’s behavior and not to the facts, i.e., the clear, observable actions of others.
Reflect back to them what they are saying. This is a technique frequently used by counselors. It’s a way of helping people hear themselves and understand what they are saying. Very often people need to say things out loud and they need to hear other people’s reactions in order to find their way.
When you reflect back what a person is saying, you are not simply trying to say the same thing with different words. It is not a slick use of language that you are trying to achieve. You say back to the person what his/her statement meant to you. This gives the person you are talking with an opportunity to hear themselves, to hear your impressions of what they are saying and to correct you if the impression that they are giving is not accurate. It is also another way of letting people know that you care about what they are saying and that they matter to you.
Your friend may make a general statement that you respond to with a specific statement. For example, she may say, “My supervisor doesn’t like anything that I do at work.” And you may respond by saying, “She doesn’t even like the way you make coffee?” Sometimes your specific statements may be humorous and may encourage your friend to look more realistically at the situation that she is dealing with at work.
The reverse may also be true. Your friend may list the things that she hates about work, and you may respond by making a general statement, like, “It sounds like there’s nothing at your work that you like.”
What your friend is saying may also bring to mind an example that you think reflects what she is talking about. For example, your friend is saying that she feels she is being treated unfairly at work. You recall that she was questioned after taking a sick day and asked to bring a doctor’s excuse. You may want to mention this example.
Another way of helping someone get things out and talk is to use a technique called “Checking it Out.” This technique involves describing what you perceive the other person’s feelings to be. By doing this, you are telling the other person that what they feel is important and you are asking the other person to tell you if you understand them. The way to use this technique is to describe the other person’s feelings as accurately as you feel you can. You must do this without making value judgments. It is not helpful to tell a person that they should not feel the way they feel.
Unfortunately, past experiences and personal issues often get in the way of listening. Sometimes it is important that you invite the other person to tell you whether your description of their feelings is accurate or not. If they tell you that it is inaccurate, try to accept this. It is not a good idea to pretend that you are a mind-reader and that you “really know how they feel.” You may not, and by saying that you do, you are not being helpful to the other person. If they are to come to understand how they feel, they need to have the opportunity to feel their feelings and not to have to accept value judgments about what they should or should not be feeling.
Here is an example of two friends talking about an overdue mortgage payment:
Jim: The damned banks! They’ve got plenty of money!
Tom: Boy, you sound really upset at the bank.
Jim: Look, man, I don’t have the money to pay the mortgage payment this month and the bank is threatening to foreclose on the house. I know we’ve been behind some, but this is ridiculous. I’ve always paid my debts. I don’t know how the hell I’m going to be able to send the kids to college at the rate I’m going.
Tom: Seems like you’re worried about sending your kids to school as well as keeping the house.
And finally, let me mention a very effective technique that most of us don’t practice very well in a tense situation. The technique is “silence.”
As the word implies, it means saying nothing. It is not a technique that tends to relax other people or that is especially relaxing for us to use when we’re feeling anxious. Many of us like to talk when we’re feeling tense. Silence requires that we say nothing, verbally or nonverbally.
Being silent is not a good idea for a situation that can turn violent or for a situation in which the person you are dealing with is angry with you. It tends to make other people more uptight and more anxious because it places the burden of talking on them and removes it from you.
Silence is a good approach to use with people to encourage them to talk more when your verbal attempts are not working. When used skillfully, silence can convey concern and interest on your part. It can encourage the silent person you’re talking with to talk, to go beyond yes or no answers, and it can also keep you from having to take sides in a conflict. For example, if two friends are having an argument and want you to give your opinion as to who is correct, silence may be an excellent response. (Resilience Coaches Manual, Chapter 7, pages 21-24)