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What Everyone Gets Wrong about Listening

Ville Kokko

Posted on October 8, 2018 03:41

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What people naturally want to say when listening to other people's worries is different than what people naturally want to hear when talking about their own worries. Unsurprisingly, this does not work too well.

In the past few years, I have been studying the methods of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in both theory and practice. One of the things emphasized in NVC, which I have found to be applicable enough in reality, is how to listen and respond to someone who is distressed or angry. It turns out that there's a way of empathetically listening that often works better than anything else. It actually helps, making the other person feel better.

We seem to have a strong, inborn need to receive a particular kind of response when we are distressed. What I also noticed, and find quite strange, is that we seem to have very little tendency to give that same kind of response when someone else comes to us to express their distress. Instead, what comes naturally to us is usually something quite different.

What do we do when someone comes to us expressing, say, sadness or anger? There are many responses, but it's common to want to fix the situation somehow, to make it so that things aren't as bad as the other person is saying. It'll be all right.

We might tell them to look on the bright side, because it really isn't all that bad.

We might tell them to just get over it, because it isn't that big of a deal.

We might correct them: What they're saying about it isn't realistic, or what they're saying they'd like to do isn't a good way of dealing with it.

We might give them advice: All right, you have this problem, so here's how you can deal with it.

What none of these things do is to demonstrate that you understand and accept how the other person is feeling. In fact, they tend to do the opposite: someone came to tell you about their worries, and you dismissed what they were saying.

This just seems to be a part of how humans are wired, for whatever reason. When we express our distress to someone else, what really helps us is for them to show they understand our distress and take it seriously.

Yet people rarely realize this when someone else comes to them like this – and barely realize it when they go to someone else to talk about it, either. It doesn't help that the person expressing their distress rarely expresses what emotions they are feeling and how this is related their unmet needs (as per NVC). Instead, they're likely to do things like accuse other people, explain how things are hopeless, and/or be aggressive.

Underneath, they need to be heard. When you talk to them empathetically, take their emotions into account, help them express what they might not be fully aware of behind their distress, and finally, show that you understand and accept how they are feeling and why; the distressed person may well find release from their distress for the moment.

Of course, it's not necessarily at all simple in practice. But the principle is.

Ville Kokko

Posted on October 8, 2018 03:41

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