How to be a Great Listener Part I: The Attitude of a Compassionate Listener
by Counseling and Wellness Center of PittsburghApril 12, 2021 best counselor for me, counseling pittsburgh, pittsburgh, relationship0 comments
“Listening is an art that requires attention over talents, spirit over ego, others over self.”
– Dean Jackson
The Attitude of Great Listeners
Developing effective and compassionate listening skills is absolutely essential in order to maintain a strong and healthy relationship. Becoming a great listener is not only vital for flourishing romantic relationships, but it is also a skill that is relevant in all aspects of life. Effective listeners are effective people. Unfortunately, these skills are not often taught, and the result is that listening skills don’t get much emphasis or development in our society.
This two-part series will focus on helping you to understand the basics of effective and compassionate listening and also teach you how to put those basics into practice. Following these simple guidelines can have a tremendous effect on both your romantic relationships, and your ability to reach your goals. In this month’s Part I blog post of “How to be a Great Listener,” we will cover the attitude of compassion that is necessary to be a compassionate and effective listener. In our next blog post, we will address the technical skills of listening that will build on this compassionate attitude!
Learning to Listen is like Learning to Ride a Bike
Learning to be a great listener can be a difficult process, often times in the beginning it feels awkward, clumsy and a bit uncomfortable. Many times, when working on listening skills in couples therapy, people tell me that this type of communication is not “them.” They may say that it does not feel right, that it is not natural, or that these listening skills do not feel authentic. My response typically sounds something like this, “I appreciate that you are letting me know that this feels unnatural, and that is okay. When I was first learning to be a counselor, this type of listening felt unnatural to me too! Thankfully, listening is a skill, it is not a personality trait, and just like any other skill it can be developed!” I tell my clients that at first it might feel unnatural, but as they develop these listening skills, they will become more personal, and will feel more natural. It is just like learning to ride a bike, or to type on a keyboard! At first, the movements may feel forced and uncoordinated, but with practice and attention, soon these skills become more familiar, they open up new and exciting avenues of exploration and expression! The same goes for listening, however when you listen, you get to explore one of the most beautiful sceneries to ever exist, the intimate world of another human being. Although becoming a great listener can be challenging at first, it is a skill that can truly transform our lives!
Great Listeners are Compassionate & Effective
Becoming a great listener can be broken down into two major aspects which come together seamlessly to allow the listener to be both compassionate and effective. The first major aspect of listening is adopting and expressing an attitude of compassion. The second major aspect of listening is developing specific listening skills and techniques to listen effectively. This post is going to focus on the compassionate listeners attitude. Most of the time we are so consumed in our own world, that we do not take the time to intentionally step into the world of another and to see the word through their eyes. In order to be great listeners, we have to possess a willingness to humbly (& momentarily) put aside our own perspective and opinion and be willing to truly witness the person in front of us. The attitude of humility and genuine interest equips us to post-pone our own agenda and to tune in to what the speaker is saying. Your goal is simply to understand.
The Golden Rule of Effective & Compassionate Listening: Don’t Problem Solve
“Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart.” Tich Nhat Hanh
Listening is more than just hearing; it is a willing and active participation in the life of another person. The attitude of compassionate listening is embodied in this one rule: don’t try to problem solve. One of the most common pitfalls that hinders the compassionate listening beautifully described by Tech Nhat Hanh (a global spiritual leader, peace activist, and poet) in the quote above, is the urge to jump into problem solving. When someone tells us about a difficult situation they are encountering, it can easily bring out our insecurities and trigger the experience of anxiety. It is intimidating to think that we might not be able to help our loved ones in a satisfactory way, in the way we think they need to be helped. Not only is it intimidating, but it can also be embarrassing. Whether it is a major life dilemma, or a small frustration, we might think to ourselves, “Oh no, this person needs help, what can I possibly say to help this person?!” We can feel overwhelmed by a sense of insufficiency and experience a sense that we must do something.
Problem-solving capabilities are the primary reason that humans have survived throughout history, so it is understandable that our first instinct is to try to fix the issue, but most of the time following the impulse to offer a solution can be damaging. More than a solution, the person experiencing a dilemma or difficulty needs the presence of another person willing to simply be with them.
Instead of problem solving or advice giving, try to tune in to what the person is experiencing. Seek to really understand what they are going through, and what emotions they are feeling. Exhibiting the willingness to sit with someone in their difficulty, conveys a sense of unconditional acceptance to that person. When we listen to someone’s difficulty and seek to truly understand their experience, we say “I accept you as you are, even when you are stressed, depressed, or anxious, and I see you as you are, completely acceptable, no matter how you are feeling.” It is essential that before jumping into problem solving, or trying to make your partner feel better, you show your partner that you really hear what they are saying. This is an opportunity to demonstrate our unconditional acceptance of the ones we love.
We are social and emotional beings that thrive on human connection. When our partner is telling us about their experience, often times, they are seeking to connect with us. They aren’t just telling us a bout a difficult situation, they are also building an emotional bridge of connection. If we miss the emotions, then we will miss the bridge, and our partner will end up feeling isolated, unimportant and invalidated. Human emotions are not problems, and they cannot be solved. Emotions are processed through expression and when you ask about those emotions you create an opportunity for processing, as well as validation. Although it might feel right for us to immediately jump into problem solving or advice giving, it is a sure way to invalidate your partner and crush the connection. Deeply listening to your partner’s difficulties is an opportunity for you to show your partner, how important they are through your presence, your patience, and your attention! If your partner wants your advice, they will likely ask for it, but unless you first show your partner that you truly understand their experience and care about their feelings, problem solving is likely to be a burnt bridge of connection. Problem solving in itself is not bad, but it is essential to listen and reflect your understanding back to your partner first, and problem solve later (like, way later). Implementing this golden rule of listening becomes much easier when we have a humble attitude complimented by some practical skills and techniques!
Your Presence is a Precious Gift
Your attitude is a tremendous tool that can set you up for success or put you on the fast track to failure. In order to be a great listener, you must embrace an attitude of humility and generosity! Effective and compassionate listening requires a strong focus on the person speaking, rather than yourself. Sometimes, the most difficult aspect of embracing this attitude is that you have let go of your own insecurities. If you hold on to the belief that you “aren’t good enough,” you will never be able to give your partner what they need most in their times of difficulty and dilemma. Whether it is an everyday frustration, or a major life transition, as humans we all long for companionship. All of us want deeply to be seen, and to be known, and at the same time, all of us are terrified of what might happen if we allow ourselves to be seen and to be known. There is nothing greater you can give someone than the gift of your human presence, of your human heart full of compassion, of being someone that is willing to sit in solidarity with the discomfort of the one you love. This is truly the gift of listening. It is not simply being silent and allowing your ears to hear. It is participating in the life of another through actively showing them, “you matter to me, your experience matters to me, your emotions matter to me, and I am willing to listen.” Through communicating in this way, you invite them to truly be themselves in an authentic and organic manner. It has often been said that the greatest gift one can give a friend is their life, and there are countless stories of people who have given their lives so that their loved ones could survive. To build on this belief of sacrifice, we should take into account the fact that one’s life can only be lived in the present moment. When you give another human your full and undivided attention, even if just for a moment, you give them your life, for life can only be lived in the now. Through letting go of your insecurities and humbly believing in the power of your human presence, you allow yourself to become a source of healing through solidarity. This is the essence of compassion, “to suffer with.” It is through embracing your own human value that you allow yourself to give another the gift which all of us long for, to be known, to be seen and to be accepted. This type of presence and belief in the power of the human spirit opens up the opportunity to extend profound empathy.
In this first part of learning how to become a great listener we have covered the basic attitude of compassionate listening. Your attitude is everything! Remember, listen first and problem solve later, way later! Jumping right into problem solving before you truly understand your partner is a sure way to crush an opportunity for compassionate connection. Have confidence in the fact that your presence is enough! Simply sitting with someone and seeking to understand their difficulty can have a profoundly healing impact on someone who is experiencing difficulty. But how do you do that?! Tune in to our next blog post where we cover how-to’s of expressing empathy and the do’s and don’ts of putting this attitude into practice!
Culture of EMPATHY Builder: Carl Rogers – page 1. (n.d.). Retrieved April 03, 2021, from http://cultureofempathy.com/References/Experts/Carl-Rogers.htm
Gottman, J. M., & Gottman, J. S. (2016). The Gottman relationship guides. Seattle: Gottman Institute.
Rogers, C. R., & Kramer, P. D. (1995). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view on psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Learn More
Trauma; Honor For Your Healing Journey
by Counseling and Wellness Center of PittsburghOctober 30, 2018 compassion, pittsburgh, positive psychology, resilience to trauma0 comments
The four things your therapist wants you to know about your healing journey. When you’re healing from a grief, trauma, or resultant PTSD, you must be thinking about ‘how will I ever move on from this horrible, unexpected, agonizing reaction to the traumatic situation that I have experienced?’ Remember, PTSD is a reaction to witnessing or experiencing a sudden and unexpected event which caused one to feel powerless by delivering, threatening, or witnessing harm. How can I rise above these feelings and thoughts and create meaningful and complete healing? Maybe you want to go backwards in time and undo all of the harm that you have experienced. A common and reasonable response to all of these above disorders, particularly PTSD, is to try to avoid all triggers associated with the situation which evoked the trauma, hypervigilance, intrusive memories, nightmares, flashbacks and an increased risk for anxiety and depression. This disorder presents a mountain to ascend, and whether you have spend years in therapy or are only beginning to acknowledge the depth of the effects this has had on you, these are some points to keep in mind. These are the 4 things that your therapist wants you to know about healing that are not immediately evident.
Healed but not Forgotten
Some people have the unrealistic expectation that when they reach the end of their healing journey they shouldn’t have any emotional reaction to their memories of the traumatic event which led to grief and loss. That is not how healing works. It is quite likely that you will always have some sort of reaction to the memories and thoughts associated with your grief or trauma. In fact, according to a 2011 study published in NIH by Sherin and Nemeroff, and according to all of science and psychology support the fact that there is potential for long term neuroanatomical and neurochemical changes to the central nervous system resulting from trauma. These changes are especially evident in the way we respond to triggers or trauma associated stimuli. What we should be striving for in the healing from trauma is a ‘new normal.’ Healing means that you are able to function in professional or personal settings and that you are practicing resilience and positive coping when waves of thought and emotion do come.
Healing means Acknowledging Feelings
One of the ways that therapy works is by creating an intentional space for healing warriors to be honest with themselves, to create an understanding of their emotions. After an awareness has been formed adaptive responses to feelings and thoughts can be generated. We create psychopathology by being critical and attempting to repress our internal honest responses. For some people like first responders, police, and paramedics, there may be an extra layer of difficulty and stigma attached to acknowledging ones feelings and seeking mental health support to manage trauma. This can cause further damaging denial of the effects of traumatic experiences, One of the core tenets of psychological theory present in every form of therapy is that the more we repress, judge or avoid our feelings, the more we cause problems. Repression elicits tangled feeling constellations, blocked energies, incomplete and unintegrated shadows. Mindfulness based stress reduction, EMDR, Cognitive Processing Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Exposure Therapy, have shown efficacy in treating PTSD. Our feelings can turn into psychopathology that are bigger and sometimes socially unacceptable forms of the original emotional response.
Healing Happens in Relationships. Find your Healing Tribe.
It is especially true for trauma that happens in relationships, that this same trauma is healed in relationships. When trauma survivors open up to those people who they consider to be safe, there is an incredible potential for healing to happen. Healing relationships are those that resonate compassion, gentle acceptance, warmth, and non-judgement. Think about it, we become close to those who we can be really honest with, those who ask about our feelings and can share in a compassionate interchange, (Mgrath, 2001). Sharing trauma should be exercised with caution. However well-intentioned our healing tribe may be, its members may inadvertently respond in less constructive ways that judge, shame, or put down the survivor for having the pain or scars of trauma. Another risk is not being able to hear or understand what is being shared. What is really needed is non-judgmental acceptance, understanding, and compassionate warmth.
Positive Psychology, Pop Culture and Non-Reality
You may have survived a trauma but that doesn’t mean you have to fall victim to meme reality. Scroll through a social media forum and you will see many posts and memes which declare that everyone should be happy all the time. That isn’t honest or possible. The healthiest among us are those who are honest with themselves about what they experience and then respond to their vulnerable reality in a constructive way. According to a 2016 study by Elizabeth Kneeland, pop cultures layman positive psychology is damaging. When pop culture got its hands on positive psychology its representatives distorted the message, and now laymen perpetuate unrealistic and uninformed messages which imply that we can think our way into a good mood. It suggests that if we blink our eyes we can make trauma and psychological distress evaporate. Your therapist knows differently. Its ok to be outraged, disgusted, sad, hurt, angry, confused, and it is important to acknowledge where you are in your healing journey today.
No matter where you are today, the best we can do is to risk opening to ourselves, to create an honest internal dialogue that we are eventually able to share with others. We should unabashedly honor our own processes, giving relentless permission to feel, think and be; in reverence of joy, in honor of glorious fury, to the fullest expression of gaiety, to the utterance of insuperable hurt, to fully hone in on repugnant disgust. Keep developing your divine awareness, and eventually you will have created the unique meaning which understands with a lens of compassion, acceptance, and self love all that has happened to you.
With love and hope for resilience,
Stephanie Wijkstrom, MS, LPC, NCC
For More Reading
Kneeland, Elizabeth et al, Positive thinking Newsweek, 2016
McGrath, Ellen. Psychology Today, published November 1, 2001
Post-traumatic stress disorder: the neurobiological impact of psychological trauma
Sherin, Jonathan E, Charles B. Nemeroff
Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2011 Sep; 13(3): 263–278.