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The power of feeling heard

How to listen more and talk less
7 MINUTE READ
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7 MINUTE READ
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“As a psychologist, listening is essential — you just won’t accomplish anything with clients unless you listen to them. But I see the power of listening in my personal life, too. If you can listen to a friend, you’ll see them become a little calmer and a little more open. You’ll see it in their body language, or they might tell you it felt really good to talk. For the person you’re listening to, there’s power in being heard and in having someone who cares understand how you feel and your perspective. It makes you feel less alone.

“When I was teaching, even though the exchange has different expectations, listening was an important skill: teachers don’t just deliver a lecture anymore, and we know that students learn better when there’s discussion and conversation. Especially when you’re mentoring, the most effective approach is to draw out ideas from students by asking questions and listening.

“Some people are naturally better at listening. There’s a whole literature in psychology about natural therapists — people who are observers and are emotionally in tune with others. They like to listen and it’s easy for them. In general, women — female-identified individuals — are more socialized to listen and to help, while men are more socialized to assert themselves and to jump in with knowledge or advice. But these differences depend on the individual, and they seem to be lessening.

“In ‘active listening,’ as it’s often referred to, you are being intentional and present. Your goal is to listen and really be there, so I like the term to differentiate from ‘passive listening.’

“In the life of a friendship, when one person is going through something, the other person may be spending a lot more time in that active listening mode. But it’s not natural for friends to do that all the time — active listening doesn’t have the reciprocity of a conversation — and you can become overburdened by a friend or family member who is very needful. That’s when you can say, gently but firmly, ‘I think you need to talk to a professional.’

“Anyone can learn to become a better listener. A good place to start, especially if you sense a friend or family member is troubled, is to express genuine concern: ‘I’ve noticed you seem a bit out of sorts, and if you’d like to talk, I’m here.’ Showing concern can open the door; even if someone isn’t ready to talk yet, you’ve identified yourself as a person who they can come to later.

“When someone is ready to talk, make space for them. It can be quite a helpful moment just to say, ‘I’ve got lots of time, and I’m going to turn off my phone so I can listen.’ We often talk about having a face-to-face conversation, and eye contact can be an important part of that. But it can also be too intense for some people, especially teenagers. So, walking and talking can be more natural and comfortable.

“Try not to make assumptions while you’re listening. We all do it in conversations, but a good listener asks open-ended questions instead: What do you mean? What happened? But watch that you don’t veer into acting like a therapist, perhaps by over-analyzing or interpreting, or repeating things back too much. If you hear yourself saying things that just don’t sound natural to you, the other person will pick up on it, too. It can be quite unwelcome then; most people don’t want therapy from their friends.

“Making a few small changes in how you listen — perhaps just consciously trying to interrupt less — can go a long way. You don’t have to be a perfect listener to be a much
better listener.”

Photo of Marion Ehrenberg near her home
Marion Ehrenberg on the beach near where she lives.

After retiring from teaching at the University of Victoria, Marion Ehrenberg wrote her first novel, The Language of Dreams. “It’s a story about the relationship between a seasoned psychologist dealing with her own vulnerabilities and a challenging young client — and how they unexpectedly change each other,” she says.

The process of writing, she believes, drew heavily on her listening and observing skills. “Years and years of listening to people carefully,” she says, “have helped me create characters that are, I hope, genuine and believable.” Ehrenberg also used her professional knowledge to explore the reality of psychotherapy and a more nuanced, authentic rendering of mental illness. “I want to encourage compassion for individuals with mental health problems,” she says, “but I’m also striving for an exciting page-turner.”

Ehrenberg advises other RTOERO members who are aspiring authors to take courses and participate in writers’ retreats, rather than going completely solo. “It’s really challenging to write a book, and a very long road, but it’s also exciting,” she says. “There is actually a point when you get in a flow, and you start dreaming about your characters.”

The Language of Dreams was nominated in 2023 for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, one of the annual BC and Yukon Book Prizes. The book trailer and a sample excerpt are available at marionehrenberg.com

10 tips from a pro

  1. Be an active and intentional listener.
  2. Shift from simply hearing the words to trying to fully understand a person’s meaning of those words: “My day was complete chaos” may mean something different to you than it does to the person you are listening to.
  3. Be fully present in the conversation; make room and space for the person you intend to listen to.
  • Stop multi-tasking. You can’t be an active listener when you are doing something else.
  • Make space. It’s OK not to be available to listen at all times; you’re not a therapist on duty for that hour. Unless it’s urgent, plan to speak when there’s space, when you’re rested and able to listen.
  • Turn off or silence your devices.
  1. Show your interest; show that you care to know.
  • Show interest with the language you use and your body language.

Verbally: “I really want to understand what you went through today.”

Non-verbally: Often interest and connection is shown through good eye contact, but sometimes for a young person or someone who is easily over-stimulated, sit side-by-side.

Be aware of your body language: Are you open, are you checking your watch?

  1. Ask open-ended questions to keep the person talking: “What was that like for you?” “What happened then?”
  2. Listen to understand rather than to come up with your response. Drop your agenda for the conversation, at least for the moment, and go into “listening mode.”
  3. Withhold judgment, if at all possible. Judgment expressed verbally or non-verbally tends to shut things down or create conflict that goes nowhere.
  4. Cultivate patience.
  5. Don’t offer advice unless someone asks for it.
    Be tentative with your advice: “Have you thought about . . .” “Have you considered calling a therapist?”
  6. By listening better, you will set the stage for good talks with that person in the future, because they had a good experience. A great example would be a parent of a teenager shifting into listening mode. That teenager is more likely to come back to that parent when they need to talk.
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