This weekend I overheard a typical mother-child exchange at the Whole Foods cafe in which the mother laid out a plan for her five or six-year-old son: “You need to eat your lunch and then we’re going to go,” she said. The boy, all wiggles and distraction, said nothing to this plan. To which the mom replied, “Listen! You need to listen!”

And that’s the word that caught me: listen.

Everywhere I’ve turned recently I’ve been caught by that word: listen.

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called Never Split the Difference by career FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss (recommended by Meg on the Sorta Awesome Podcast). Voss’ basic thesis is that almost all communication is negotiation. And at the heart of negotiation is listening.

Actually, it’s not just listening, but letting the other person feel heard.

 

 

Voss outlines a lot of strategies for this: paraphrasing, mirroring, labeling, empathizing, and unconditional regard.  He says that one of the main goals in negotiating is for someone to say “that’s right” when you explain back what you hear them saying.

I tend to think I’m a fairly decent listener. But in reading this book, I realized that even if I’m very good at taking in what the other person is trying to communicate that’s not enough. They want to be heard; they want to know that I’ve heard them.

The other day I was having a phone conversation about politics with someone close to me. I came home and told my husband Evan about it, and I said, “I know that I should have been practicing all that stuff about listening that I was learning, but honestly I just wanted to have [that person] hear me and what I thought.”

To which Evan responded, “Well that’s pretty much everyone’s story, all the time.”

Isn’t that the truth though?

We want to listen. But we want to be heard more.

 

 

This is not the first time I’ve come across the importance of active listening. I know that it’s the foundation of therapeutic counseling—creating a space in which someone feels safe to really share. The counselor reflects back what the client says, helping the client feel understood and somehow at the same time gaining new understanding.

It’s also all the best advice for how to have a decent marital conflict as well. A spouse shares what’s wrong, the other spouse reflects it back, and the first person gets to say, “that’s right, or no that’s not what I meant” before trying the whole loop again until eventually both parties feel heard.

 

 

The trouble is that is really hard. It’s why counselors go to school and get paid a lot of money to listen. It’s why there are so many marriage books and even more marital conflicts: listening, and letting the other person be heard is really hard.

 

 

I’m not sure exactly how to get better at listening. I imagine that it’s a combination of believing in it and practicing it—the mirroring, paraphrasing, labeling, and summarizing—when all I want to do is tell my side of the story. The more we believe that becoming adept at letting people be heard is worth practicing, the more we’ll do it; the more we do it and see how well it works, the more we’ll believe in it.

Mothering right now is a lot of listening and reflecting back what I think Jackson is trying to communicate. He cries around nap time, “I hear your said cries; I think you’re tired.” He refuses another bite at dinner, “I think you’re saying you’re full.” He squawks when we’re sitting on the couch, “Up please mommy!” I say for him.

Even when he gets words, I know from my niece and godson that two-year-olds love for you to repeat back to them what they’ve said, so they know you’ve heard them.  Toddlers live in a constant state of wanting to be understood and having a limited means to communicate. But truthfully even when we have thousands of words at our command, people don’t really listen and understand us much of the time.

Listen. Repeat. Listen. Repeat.

 

 

Prayer is like that too I think. Evan and I are pulling together a few things to help train people at our church to be Eucharistic Prayer Ministers (i.e. praying in the back of the church with people individually while everyone is taking communion.) And I come back to listening. You listen to the person asking for prayer. You listen to the Holy Spirit. And you pray aloud what you’ve heard.

Because we believe in a God who listens and hears: “I call on you, my God, for you will answer me; turn your ear to me and hear my prayer.”  (Psalm 17:6)

We think when we’re talking that we want most of all for someone to agree with us. Or we think when we’re praying that we want most for God to give us what we’re asking for. But maybe we actually want to be heard.

Sure, sometimes I think we ardently believe that it would be better for the person to come around to believe in what we’re saying, or that what we’re praying for is good and right and God’s heart for the world.

But all the time we want to be heard.

 

 

Yesterday morning the Common Prayer reading was that very strange story of Hagar and Sarai and Abram from Genesis 16—the one in which everyone is making sub-optimal choices.  Hagar runs away, pregnant by Abram and abused by Sarai, and God comes to Hagar at a well in the desert and tells Hagar to go back, that He knows her story, and that she’ll be alright, the mother of many. And Hagar does what she’s told to do saying, “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”  Nothing changes about her situation, except she knows that God sees her, that God hears her, that God has not forgotten her.

 

 

Maybe that is what we are called to do: to be ministers of God’s promise that He sees and hears and does not forget his children. When we are listening and hearing their stories, we are reminding people that God listens and hears, sees and understands. He has not forgotten us, and in the middle of trials, He has good plans for us.

How do you practice listening when you just want to be heard? Do you have any tips for me to become a better listener?

 

 

*Note* This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means if you were to buy a book, I’d get a tiny commission at no cost to you. Thanks for supporting Stories & Thyme!*

 

9 Responses to on listening

  1. Anne Hays says:

    You are inspiring me to read Chris Voss’ book and try to be a better listener. I belong to a discussion group where good listeners are desperately needed – we already have a couple of good talkers!
    I particularly liked your phrase “A decent marital conflict”. You could probably defuse an argument just by saying “Let’s have a decent marital conflict over this!”
    The photo of the wild flowers is really beautiful, as is the one of the cliff with flowers clinging to it.
    Thank you for a particularly good blog.
    Love, Grandma Anne

    • Amy Rogers Hays says:

      Thanks Grandma Anne! Those are all our pictures from our April San Diego trip. (I thought they’d be better than a bunch of pictures of ears…although Jackson’s ears are pretty cute.) I think you’d enjoy Chris Voss’s book! It’s really readable with great stories. I love the idea of trying to use the phrase to defuse an argument, because we so often are in denial that we’re having an argument at all!

  2. What a wonderful, wise post. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom about how to listen. I’ve forgotten that technique of repeating what someone says back to them to make sure I’ve heard them properly.

    • Amy Rogers Hays says:

      Thanks Katie! There seems to be no lack for me to try and practice these things everyday…I so quickly forget to try them, and then I’m amazed that they work so well when I do remember!

  3. Lacy says:

    Amy! Great post – a much needed reminder that feels especially important given the current climate in our country. And you were linked on the SortaAwesome newsletter!! 😊

    And regarding two year olds – you are dead on. They repeat and repeat what they say until you’ve repeated it back at least a couple of times – at least that’s the current practice at our house!

    • Amy Rogers Hays says:

      Thanks Lacy! I didn’t even notice I was in the newsletter…now I feel like a tiny awesome celebrity! wohoo! I can start to see this mirroring in Jackson who loves to give things to me and have me hand them back, over and over and over. He’s started to want to feed us at dinner, like you feed me and I’ll feed you, we just share food right? It’s like a little communion service with sweet potatoes.

  4. Lucy says:

    Amy, I love this post!! I feel like listening is one of those skills I assume I’m fine at–because I tend to be quiet in larger groups, tend to notice things, and hey, both my ears work. … But there is so much more to it than that, and to be honest, I have a lot to learn about intentional listening. (And calming my inner impatience to be heard, instead!)

    Thanks for stirring my thoughts on this!! (Oh, and I love how you brought in Hagar’s story. I’ve always found her naming God “the One who sees me” especially moving.) Lovely post, my friend!

    • Amy Rogers Hays says:

      Thanks Lucy, I agree calming inner impatience is so hard. I somehow feel that time in a premium that I have to stake my claim on or there won’t be enough for me. But over and over again I find that reminding myself there is enough time is so important. Enough time for the work; enough time for play; enough time for rest; enough time for the words. Too, I have been puzzling over how this listening business translates into writing fiction, especially dialogue. In some ways it seems like it might not be exactly the same because it would be awfully cumbersome for the reader to read every line of dialogue twice as the other person repeats back. But on the other hand, paraphrasing, labeling, and repeating a key word to allow the first character to elaborate could be really helpful. Overall, I’ve been thinking that sometimes what my character wants (and what I want!) is to be heard. And of course the inverse of that, that feeling unheard and misunderstood are powerful ways to create conflict and push the character to do something unwise (but narratively interesting or important.)

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