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
by Counseling and Wellness Center of PittsburghAugust 25, 2019 chores, marriage, marriage and family, national institute of health, relationship, way couples can stop arguing about household chores0 comments
Couples Counselor verified; 6 ways that Couples Can Stop Arguing about Household Chores.
Cleaning and how to manage it with some degree of harmony is a topic that comes up often for couples, it ranks right up there with finances and parenting in terms of hot button relationship issues. The research weighs in, according to the National Institute of Health, in relationships where both partners are engaged in managing household chores, wives have higher happiness and well-being in the relationship. Furthermore, the opposite is true, in marriages where only one partner, typically the female partner, manages the majority of household labor, there is greater dissatisfaction and distress, this is especially true in relationships where both partners are a part of the work force. The stress and imbalances in shared responsibilities can take their toll, in fact according to data compiled by business insider, house-hold chores are a common reason people divorce. Often when couples take the time to dig a little deeper into what each of these critical issues means to the other, the dialogue changes. Instead of pointing fingers at each other, they can consider, what are the true barriers to making change, and then work on creating mutually achievable solutions, it is empowering to realize that these conflicts can be resolved. Here are our therapists 6 best ways to stop arguing about household chores.
- Co-create a cleaning list of total household chores; divide and conquer. This may seem basic, and it is. One of the problems we as couples therapists observe is that one partner carries the ‘cognitive load’ for organizing, cleaning, and managing the household. Data shows that this is often the woman in the home, she then asks for help and the male partner may feel criticized or micromanaged when he is asked to help. When couples co-create a weekly list on a dry erase board, both partners become responsible for completing it. This can also help both partners see the sheer volume of work that must happen to keep the house managed well. Add an initial next to the task once it is completed and then you can even turn it into a competition, create a prize or personal expression of gratitude for the person each week who completes more tasks etc.
- Recognize that while one partner may be more focused on cleaning, don’t take that as a lack of love. We all view the world in a different way, we walk into living-room and some people see the pillows on the couch in disarray, others never notice the pillows because their brains are not wired that way. Partners who have repeatedly had discussions or battles about cleaning may end up feeling very hurt imagining, ‘If my partner cared about me, they would do the dishes or clean the bathroom.” The truth is, they may love you very much but household tidiness may not be on their radar. In other instances, a partner may be struggling with depression or another mental health disorder that prevents them from action. In any event, do your best to not make the cleaning about his or her love for you.
- Use a soft start instead of a criticism! Soft start is stating your feeling and what you need, this is a Gottman Couples Therapy Method to break up the tendency that couples have to criticize each other. Instead of saying, “You never wipe down the counter tops!” You might try, “I am really tired today with a busy work week, I could really use extra help with the counter tops.” This way prevents our partner from feeling attacked and makes it less likely your conversation will spiral and instead you may achieve your goal which is to be responded to kindly!
- Figure out what having a clean house means to each partner. Talk about it constructively! Figure out what is most important to your partner about cleaning the home, ask them questions that play back to their own childhood too. It is amazing how much you can learn when instead of responding to each other’s criticisms you go deeper. Maybe your partners parent had OCD or were perfectionists, maybe your partners parents never cleaned and they were embarrassed to bring friends back to the house as a kid. Meaning is vital for couples by providing a context for each person’s wants and needs.
- If you want your partner to share in the chores, you might need to accept that they will likely perform the chores differently that you do. Some couples expect their partner to become the perfect task master and do everything the way that they have been instructed. This isn’t fair, we need to accept that our partner will come up with a different way of doing things, when we create a home with a partner, it doesn’t get to be all about the way each individual wants to do things, collaboration and mutual problem solving are necessary.
You may not have this fight forever. According to Stephanie Wijkstrom, MS, LPC, she stated that “One couple she worked with for many years used to fight about the pillows never being straight on the couch. The woman fumed about it leading to many battles, several years later her husband died, and each day when the woman walked to her living room she was tearful, wishing that those pillows were misshapen. Remember, our time on this earth is limited. The things that annoy us today we may end up missing tomorrow.”
For a couples therapy or marriage counseling appointment near you, please call us at our Pittsburgh Counseling Center, Wexford Counseling Center, Monroeville Counseling Center, or New South Hills Counseling Center!