When was the last time a friend shared something deep with you? Or how long has it been since you discussed a hardship in the life of that family member you see every week? Difficult discussions are hard to navigate. So, we tend to avoid them. You know your spouse is disappointed with work. But it’s easier to talk about the kids and their activities. It’s clear that Mom is struggling with the loss of her friends as they get older, but changing the subject seems to help. Right? Wrong. Learning how to listen well in difficult conversations is a skill you can use for the rest of your life.
Practical Tips for How to Listen Well
Effective listening begins with empathetic listening.Empathy is different from sympathy. Sympathy listens to a friend share her relationship obstacle and says, “Oh, wow, that is tough. Let’s go to a movie and take your mind off it.” However, empathy listens to a friend and replies, “I haven’t been there myself, but I can see how much you are hurting. I’m so sad for you, and I want you to know I am here for you.”
Being able to see a challenge from someone else’s perspective is empathy. This does not mean you can relate to a person’s exact circumstance or wound, but you can imagine how they feel. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes reveals that your heart is with them and that you are not afraid of their emotions.
Effective listening means not trying to solve the problem.
We all want to make things better for ourselves and for those we love, but it takes a commitment to simply hear someone’s story without judgment if we want to be a supportive friend. Learning to listen without evaluating our loved one’s choices, responses, or emotions is crucial. It makes the other person feel heard. That’s what we all want most when we are going through something challenging.
Your loved one likely does not expect you to solve his or her problem. Effective listening means you’re willing to repeat key phrases shared, ask a timely question, or nod while they talk. If you are rushed, or tired, it is difficult not to search for a quick resolution to their relational dilemma.
Identifying a place to connect is vital to showing support.When your neighbor tells you that her daughter is using drugs and she feels like a bad parent, it might be tough for you to relate. Maybe your child is younger, or you don’t even have kids. But you can imagine the last time you felt like a failure at something. You can remember the guilt and temptation to heap blame on yourself. Playing a supporting role is what effective listening is all about.
Your job is not to share a similar story from your own life, share about your day, or ask prying questions; your job is to care, to show that you care, and to spend time connecting, even if it means rearranging your schedule or letting your story take a backseat to what your friend is going through.
Being vulnerable is paramount to effective listening.
When we try to gloss over what someone is going through or rush a person ahead of the grieving process, we are communicating that their pain is too much for us. This isn’t helpful or healing.
Allowing your own painful emotions to come up as you are listening to this difficult conversation is okay. It’s even encouraged. To show that you are feeling something is to show that you are engaged.
Sometimes, it’s easier to “listen” so that we can share our next thing. Or making an excuse like, “I have to go,” can cut a story short. But a friend who is angry with us or sad about the loss of a relationship needs our respect. We show respect by exhibiting patience and being able to feel with them.
It can be scary to access negative feelings because it strips us of the images we like to project – even to those who know us well. However, effective listening reaches out anyway because we want our friend or family member to feel cared for more than we want our image to stay intact.
Listening and looking go together in difficult conversations.Have you ever tried to follow a recipe without pictures of the final dish? It’s doable but not ideal. Similarly, when trying to simply listen with our ears in the middle of a difficult conversation, we may miss key clues about how our friend is doing.
Consider how much courage it takes for a family member to share that he has been “a little down” lately. It took bravery to utter that phrase, but his words may be just the beginning.
Noticing his posture, his eye contact, and if his head is held high or low can tell you more than his words could say alone. So, it’s important to pay attention with more than just our ears. We must notice the minute details and mannerisms of the person who is sharing.
Effective listening means asking appropriate questions.
Learning to ask relevant questions can help you remember what you are hearing. But it also really helps the speaker. When you ask a question that helps your friend realize something new, it can be incredibly healing. Here are some tips for asking appropriate questions:
- Stay away from “yes” or “no” questions unless they are to clarify the person’s story as they tell it.
- Ask questions that begin with “how,” “who,” or “what” so that your friend sees you are trying to understand her perspective.
- Once your friend has shared her pain, you can follow up when appropriate with questions that help her evaluate how she is doing. Questions such as, “How did that make you feel?” and “Why do you think that?” can even bring silence and consideration into a heated discussion.
- Don’t be afraid of silence. When you ask a question that’s tough to answer or something that the other person has not considered, wait. It shows respect, and it shows you are not afraid of hearing the answer, however uncomfortable that answer may be.
- Try not to interrupt. Allowing people space to share their stories fully reminds them you are there for them and they are not alone.
Research shows that the average adult spends 70-80% of his time engaged in some kind of communication. While many of us struggle to be effective listeners, we can grow as we practice these skills. Effective listening can go a long way to building trust, restoring fractured relationships, and experiencing forgiveness when we wrong someone.
Would you like to learn more about becoming a better listener? We would love to help you learn how to have difficult conversations from a Christ-centered perspective.
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