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Listening to Understand, Not to Reply

Mariah (Dantzler) McFetridge

cheerful mature females talking at homeHow often are we listening to understand instead of listening to change? Research shows that most conversations we have are one way; meaning that we are only listening to gain information for ourselves to then reply. When people don’t feel heard or understood, especially children, they tend to get louder to try to communicate how they feel or what they need. Simply validating a person by reflective statements can help a person feel understood, aligned with, and most importantly heard. We do not always need to have a solution or answer. An example of this could be that Sally comes home from school after a long day stating she feels overwhelmed by day and a parent might reflect back to her “you feel tired and stressed, school days can be hard.” It’s tempting to ask Sally “have you used your agenda to help” or stated, “well, we need to come up with a solution that doesn’t make you feel that way” and while those statements are well intentioned it does not help for Sally to feel understood and heard. We do not always need to solve problems, sometimes just allowing space for someone to feel heard can allow them to make the changes they need within themselves.

Here are some tips to reflective and empathetic listening

  • Listen with your body – Mirror the person you are talking to. If the person leans a little forward, lean in as well. If the person whispers, honor them by taking your voice down too. Maintain eye contact and use cues that reflect that you are tracking with them, such as head nods, “mmhmms”, etc.
  • Respond by repeating before commenting – this can seem strange at first, but it allows for increased trust within the conversation. If your child is sad because his toy was taken away reflect by stating “you are sad because you lost your toy.”
  • Do not infer your own judgements onto someone else – we tend to think of judging as a “bad” thing. Judging is not good or bad but is something we all do by taking our own thoughts and opinions and projecting them onto others. If something seems exciting to us that does not mean it is necessarily exciting to the other person. Follow their lead and emotional cues to land you at a place where you can respond to the emotions they are experiencing. If someone has a packed weekend of birthday parties, they may be feeling overwhelmed so stating “you must be so excited!” might be inaccurate for them in that moment.

Listening to understand vs to reply is a skill that takes time, but it is proven to deepen connection and relationships. Get started listening well today!

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