During an argument a few months ago, my husband, John, accused me of being a bad listener. “Who, me?” I thought. “I interview people for a living—all I do is listen!” Later, after I calmed down, I remembered that John is actually a pretty reasonable and insightful guy—if he says he's not feeling listened to, maybe it really is me. So, for a second opinion, I texted someone who has known me for a really long time: “John says I don't listen. Am I hard to talk to?” Her response: “You can be, yes. Love, Mom.” And there you have it. I quit arguing and asked some experts for help. Here's the advice that has really resonated with me. Think you don't need it? Read on anyhow—you may be surprised.
#1 Check your assumptions. If you're already certain that you know what's going on in someone's head, your brain is primed to accept only information that agrees with your preconceived notions. Yet if you can cultivate a sense of genuine interest about where the other person is coming from and what he or she might say, you create an environment in which whoever you're talking to feels heard and you can actually hear. “I don't think it's possible to not make any assumptions—it's just in everybody's hardwiring,” says psychology researcher John Stewart, author of U&Me: Communicating in Moments That Matter and other seminal texts on interpersonal communication. Still, it is possible, he says, to check your assumptions out loud, with the person you're listening to. Try asking “so you mean …” or “so you're thinking that …” and let the person confirm or correct.
#2 Get curious. The amazing thing about being genuinely curious is that it keeps you from being defensive, Stewart says. Seriously—try it! “Hmmm, I wonder why my partner hates it so much when I leave my clothes on the floor?” instead of “Ugh, he's such a neat freak and thinks I'm lazy.” You might find out, as I did, that the piles of clothes make your partner feel stressed and disorganized, as if our lives are out of control. I'd much rather just pick up my yoga pants than do that to him. A good way to exercise curiosity is to ask open-ended questions such as “say more about…,” one of Stewart's favorites. “Can you say a bit more about how that makes you feel?” or “Can you say more about that to help me understand?”
#3 Suspend judgment. Sometimes we become so entrenched in our own beliefs and opinions that we close down and don't want to hear anything else from anyone else, even those closest to us. “But if we close down, we're going to miss important messages,” says Philip Tirpak, an instructor of communication studies at Northern Virginia Community College and president of the International Listening Association, which supports research and teaching on effective listening. “The first thing to do is suspend your judgment. Try really hard to let the other person talk,” he says. “Take in the entire message, no interruptions allowed. Just listen.” When you do that, you'll often find that even if you do disagree there is at least some shared ground or goals, which makes it easier to put yourself in the other person's shoes—that phenomenon known as empathy. “Empathy deals with shared experiences—sometimes we don't have many, but in the big picture we're all really more the same than we are different,” Tirpak says.
#4 Know when to tap out. “Genuine listening requires humility and curiosity—and neither can be successfully faked,” Stewart says. If you're not feeling well, if you're hurried, rushed or overly stressed, you're not going to be able to be truly present and curious during a conversation, especially a tough one. In those moments, Tirpak says, “there's nothing wrong with just saying, ‘I can hear that this is really important to you, and I want to give you my full, undivided attention. Can we wait for a bit? I need some time.’”
After talking with story sources all day at work and listening to the near-constant chatter of our two little girls at home, I sometimes feel as if I can't listen to one more word. Even from the mouth of the one I love most. But the next time I find myself there, I'll be honest about my intentions and my limitations. Instead of trying to fake it, we'll just try again later.