Attentive listening is powerful…and difficult. Whether you are a manager, a parent, a co-worker, or just a human being, an important first step to helping someone in pain is to pause, pay attention, and listen.
In their whimsical, insightful book, There Is No Good Card For This, Dr. Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell write,
“While you’re listening, you’re focused entirely on what the person is saying, and you’re not simultaneously thinking about how you’re going to respond…In most cases, this is the best kind of listening we can do.”
Case in point: It has been a rough few weeks for my kindergarten daughter. She was sick before spring break, missing a class party. She is suffering from seasonal allergies. One of her good friends moved to China, she feels behind in her sight words…and dinner was, in her estimation, “so yucky!” All these swirling emotions converged as she fell on the couch, moaning, “I don’t even want to go back to school or grow up or do anything. I just want to go into a hole and hibernate for the rest of my life!”
In that moment, Jemima was dysregulated, overwhelmed. She did not need me to strategize and create a plan to complete the sight words. She did not want me to offer platitudes about how she would make new friends. And she certainly did not need me to say something like, “At least you don’t have it as bad as children that are starving in Syria…”
No, what Jemima wanted was for me to just listen. And six-year-old Jemima is not all that different from your co-worker. When she shares that her son suffers from chronic ear infections or that her marriage is falling apart, she is searching for empathy, not advice or strategies or comparisons.
You can cultivate good listening skills in smaller, less freighted situations. Ask a friend to tell you a story and just sit, without interrupting, fixing your full attention on the speaker. Crowe and McDowell recommend sitting for three seconds (yes, you can count in your head) after hearing hard news. This gives the other person time and space to add more or less. And when he or she begins to talk, pay attention.
What to say (and what not to say) when the person is done sharing is the topic for another post…but listening well is foundational.