The other day, I went to work early with the intention of getting a few things done before the day of meetings began. I barely hit the light switch in my office, and someone was at my door. She was having issues with a member of my team. So much for my hope to get a head start on my day! I gave her my full attention, and let her describe the problem to me.
It turned out that what she really needed—probably without being aware of it—was to be heard and have her feelings of overwhelm acknowledged. As I listened to her, it became clear that she really didn’t have a case against my staff. Rather, the real issue was that she felt overloaded, which didn’t allow her to provide the information and clarification necessary for my staff to support her effectively. I first made sure I let her know I heard her, by reflecting back to her what I heard. Then, I explained calmly the collaboration my team needed from her to be able to deliver what she needed. There was absolutely no way around it. Later in the day, I got separate confirmation from her and my staff that things were better between them and that the project was moving forward.
What was clear from that experience was that, if I hadn’t first created the space for this business partner to say what she needed to say, the problem would have continued to escalate. When I was in the listening mode, I didn’t say whether I agreed or disagreed with what I was hearing, nor did I comment or rebut. It was only after she was done presenting her case that I asked questions and offered my opinion on what needed to happen, which included things she needed to do that she didn’t do before. Because I acknowledged her complaint first, both overt (issues with my staff) and covert (resentment for having too much on her plate), she was able to hear what I had to say about what was needed to resolve the situation.
This experience happened in a professional setting. However, it can—and does—happen in personal situations as well. When we feel heard, we are more receptive to hearing what we ourselves need to hear. On the contrary, when we don’t feel heard, we tend to close off and dig in our heels, even if we aren’t aware of stonewalling the other party. When we feel heard, we feel the other party is on our side. When we don’t feel heard, it’s us vs. them.
Helping Others Feel Heard
So, how can we tell if there isn’t enough listening, and how do we help someone feel heard? Let’s start with signs of not enough listening:
- When they keep repeating themselves. Some people tend to repeat themselves no matter what. Beyond personality quirks, though, when someone keeps saying the same thing over and over again, especially something that’s high in emotional content, pay attention. Chances are that they’re repeating themselves because they didn’t feel heard.
- They become combative. Again, specific personalities aside, when people don’t feel heard, they feel they’re alone fighting for themselves—because, in their mind, they’re on their own, and you aren’t on their side.
- They stonewall. For those who don’t like to fight, they’d retreat into passive-aggressiveness. Again, they don’t feel part of the same team as you, so why bother?
Now, let’s talk about what we may be able to do to help someone feel heard:
- Give them your undivided attention. Maintain full eye contact without staring them down. Let them know you’re fully with them while they tell you what’s on their mind—or in their heart. Remember, this isn’t about agreeing or disagreeing with them. You’re simply holding space for them to talk.
- Reflect back what you heard. I find it really helpful to start with saying, “I hear you, [name]”—and really mean it. Then, paraphrase back to them what you heard, “What I heard is that you think/feel…” Again, this is just to confirm that you heard them, not necessarily whether you agree with what you heard.
- Verify that they feel heard. Ask them, “Did I miss anything?” This may seem too obvious to state, but asking if you got what they want you to hear is the best way to ensure that they are heard.
Listening keeps communication open, builds rapport and trust, and enables all parties involved to move toward a common underlying interest.
Over to you: Can you think of situations when you were the person who was or wasn’t heard and the party who did or didn’t listen? What happened and what were the outcomes? What may you add to the above lists about how to spot lack of listening and how to help someone feel heard?
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