Relationship Skills, Part 1 (Read Part 2, Effective Apologies, HERE)
by Laura Ross Wood, LMSW, CHt, BHE
Have you heard the saying about how we have two ears and one mouth for a reason? It’s all about one of the most poorly understood relationship skills there is. We all yearn for a good listener in our lives, and rarely find one… most of us can count the people who truly listen to us on one hand, if we’re lucky. For something that is such an important part of human connection, it is an exceedingly rare and poorly-executed skill. Luckily, it’s also a very simple concept that is easy to learn, and easy to become good at with a little practice.
This article is about taking that skill even further, and improving your ability at what I call intentional listening. It will also be a resource you can share to help others in your life listen well.
Good listening around birth
Anyone who has given birth or experienced the birth of a child will tell you that, when you speak about it later, you’re typically only allowed one emotion – gratitude. Here’s what this can sound like:
Person 1: “I am so in love with my baby, but I found/am finding ______ part of my experience to be really challenging…”
Person 2: “Oh, don’t think that way! Concentrate on how lucky you are that you and your baby are okay/safe/healthy!”
Most of us, in a vulnerable state, hear something like that and think, “Well, yes, that’s true…” On some level, we tend to also think if what the other person just said represents an undeniable truth, what we feel must be wrong. It’s hard to understand the subtleties and complexities of all the feelings we feel, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of letting others tell us what is okay and what is not okay to feel — especially when we are vulnerable. Even though it’s meant as a kindness, if you look at the “Person 2” statement above more carefully, you’ll see two parts to it: (1) a directive to stop feeling the way you feel; and (2) a directive about how you should feel instead. Make no mistake: this is meant to be a kindness. However, there is a collective wound many people carry around birth, and it may have its deep roots in the simple act of being told that what they are feeling is wrong, and that they should feel a different way.
If this happens to you, and you hear this pattern and can identify it, you can realize that you are in the presence of an unskilled listener. Know that what you feel is still valid. At this point there are two choices… (1) ask for what you need (for instance, saying, “Yes, that’s true, but I’d really like to have someone just listen to my feelings about it, and not correct me. Are you in a space where you can do that?” or (2) recognize the kindness intended, and also recognize that you still have a right to feel everything you feel. Then find someone who will listen, someone who has earned the right to hear your story. This might be a friend, family member, clergy person, support group, or a trained professional.
Good listening with children
My sister Shelley is a fiercely good listener. She was the first person in my life to show me the power of this skill. I’ve seen her use it at the birth center with our staff and clients, and I’ve seen her use it regularly with other people in her life, including me. One of the most astonishing times I saw her use the power of good listening was something very simple that happened about 16 years ago, with Shelley’s then five-year old daughter Lauren. After the birth of her little brother, Lauren was feeling jealous of the new baby’s hold on her mother’s attention. She told her mom that she hated her brother and she wished he would die. When I heard this part of the story, in my glorious adult all-knowingness, I felt certain I knew what would come next – a swift and powerful statement about how Lauren was supposed to feel and a strict directive about the right way to talk about people we love. What Shelley did instead shocked me, and taught me a powerful lesson. She told Lauren, “Wow, it sounds like you’re having some really big feelings. You’re really mad.” And that was it. And Lauren softened and cried and shared her feelings about the huge changes in her life, and felt safe and heard and understood. Fast forward: Lauren is 21 now and has a wonderful loving relationship with her brother, and by all accounts is a successful and empathetic person. How did this happen without someone directing her how to feel and act?
Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.
Most of us instinctively tell children how to feel and act. We distract a crying child, or send an angry child to their room, or make a little one apologize when they’re not feeling it AT ALL, or punish them for “acting out.” And all of this tends to work okay when they’re little, because they mostly do what we say and we’re bigger than them. It sometimes feels as if a big part of parenting is telling children exactly how being a good person works and what they should be feeling. It can be tough to have trust in a child: trust that they don’t really mean something they say; trust that they will turn out okay even without being punished or directed, trust that they really do want to do well and please us, or trust that their emotions are valid and that they will pass. It sometimes feels scary to allow others feel big emotions – especially children.
Here’s a little thought experiment: Imagine how well it would work if you were angry or tired or sad or cranky or jealous, and someone ordered you to stop feeling that way, or to calm down, or they tickled you. Could you immediately change course because someone told you to? Children are little humans, and although they are moldable and open, they also deserve the dignity and respect of owning their own feelings. Imagine what a relief it might be for a child to feel safe in their feelings, and to share them with the adults in their lives.
Listening sounds so simple, so why is it so hard? Unlike a give-and-take conversation, intentional listening is about supporting someone else when they’re struggling. It’s a gift you give. There are some basic guidelines to follow:
Be a safe place. Assume that what people tell you is private. Even though it’s tempting to share, it’s not your story to tell (unless the speaker or someone else’s safety is on the line, of course).
Don’t try to make them feel better. There is no need to ever, ever tell someone how this happened for a reason, or that someone they love is in a better place. Trying to put a positive spin on something hard usually just serves to undermine it, or it makes the other person mad.
If you’re listening to help, most of the time, being a witness and holding a space is all that’s required. We all want a witness to our lives. Allowing someone to share something important to them is a gift. Bonus: If you’re just being a witness, the pressure is off! No need to solve anything for others, or to know all the things. Trust the person sitting in front of you.
Listen without telling them why they are wrong to feel what they feel. An example of this might be saying something like, “No way, you’re going to be a great mom!” or “Oh, I’m sure she likes you. You’re very likeable,” or “You should feel grateful/proud/happy…etc.” On its surface, it seems like a nice thing to do to help someone feel better, but if you think about it, when you say something like that you are basically telling them they’re wrong to feel the way they feel, and that they should feel what you tell them to feel instead. And that usually doesn’t feel very good.
Intentional listening can be about being curious, repeating back, and asking for clarification. Say things like, “Mmmm…” and “That sounds really hard,” and “What I’m hearing is ______, did I get that right?” and “Tell me more,” and “Say more about that,” and “I’m sorry this is so tough.”
Here’s some really good advice: Never give advice (unless it’s specifically asked for). This includes solving problems for someone, suggesting courses of action, and saying things like, “Just do _____…” If the person takes your advice, it’s usually just because you said the thing that sounded right to them — which means they already knew it. Giving someone advice can also make it feel like you’re standing above the other person, in a status kind of way… and it shuts down their ability to share. The typical end result is that the person sharing does not feel heard. Try trusting people to find their own solutions. One of the most powerful listening statements is, “I can see how hard this is, but I know you, and I know you’ll find your way through it. I’m here if you ever want to talk about it.”
Listen without sharing your own story. Of course, in a normal conversation, there’s a back and forth and sharing of stories. Intentional listening is different, and all about support. Avoid commiserating or trying to connect over a similar situation. In fact, most people barely listen to others, as they’re busy formulating what they are going to say next. Give the person speaking the floor. And the person looking for comfort should really never feel that they have to comfort you. If you’re interested in learning more about this, there is a really smart theory called “Ring Theory: the Concentric Circles of Grief,” which is worth a look.
See if you can sit with emotion if it comes up in the person you’re listening to, and just allow it to be what it is. Try not to say something like, “Shhh…” or “Don’t cry.” You can try coaching the person to just breathe through it, which is very accepting. Or just sit quietly and hold their hand. Again, trust this person that they can feel big things and come back down the other side, and be okay again. Emotion is just another part of our human experience.
So much of the above is about trust and allowing. Emotion can be halted or stuffed down or compartmentalized, but I believe it demands to be expressed at some point, whether we want it to come out or not. Allowing ourselves to feel what we feel is a self-esteem-building miracle. Allowing others to feel what they feel builds trust and floods the room with gratitude, every time. And it’s all so simple!
Of course, feelings and actions are different. You don’t have to let someone else’s emotion to cause you to feel flooded or overwhelmed. My rule is that every part of us is always allowed to feel what we feel, but not every part of us is allowed to “drive the bus.” If someone’s emotional state is feeling unsafe to you, or they are acting in a way that is uncomfortable for you, always make sure your safety and well-being are your first priority.
My rule is that every part of us is always allowed to feel what we feel, but not every part of us is allowed to “drive the bus.”
You may also not be in a good place to listen. Good listening is a gift we give, but not a requirement. If someone is wanting to speak and you don’t want to or can’t listen at that time, it’s okay to firmly and lovingly draw a boundary.
Finally, the safety warning: if you or someone you love is thinking of self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out to a mental health professional for help, or call 911. It’s okay to ask if someone is thinking of suicide if you’re worried about it.
That’s the big stuff! Try some of it on next time someone needs an ear (or two), and see what kind of response you get. Be gentle with yourself as you’re learning. And that leads me to Part 2 of this newsletter, which is all about good apologies. (Read Part 2, Effective Apologies, HERE.)
Laura Wood, LMSW, CHt, BHE | Licensed Social Worker, Blissborn Class Instructor, DAL Class Coordinator
Laura is a therapist and author, and co-founder of the Blissborn Natural Birth childbirth education program. She loves teaching her Blissborn classes at Dar a Luz. She really enjoys working with parents and families, and feels very lucky to do what she does — she just skips around smiling most of the time! She and her husband live in beautiful Los Ranchos with their 14-year-old volleyball-obsessed daughter, who is over 6’2″ and still growing! She also has two awesome sons, who are both in college.