Friday, January 16, 2015

Active listening - what I learned about this and how it helps. [EN / PL]


I see a difference between hearing and listening which wasn't seen by most of the people I've been meeting in my life. Usually when they talk to each other, they use a lot of phrases like: huh!really?!I see!oh yeah?no way!, etc. So do they really listen or do they just pretend to listen? Do they know how you feel? Do you feel heard? Do you feel understood and that they're with you? When I don't have any feedback, I lose interest in sharing anything with that person because what's the point of sharing if everything you say goes somewhere and it's forgotten immediately; I don't know if the other person actually got it or not; I say something important and I hear OK in response which make me feel kind of lost. An example explaining what I mean is having a GPS in your car. You move and an arrow shows you where you are, your position changes every foot you drive. If the GPS wouldn't give you any feedback, you would have no idea how to get to a place which you were going to; you'd be confused and lost. The same with listening to the other person. It isn't much about listening to things they say; it's more about listening to them, their emotions, how they feel at the moment. And the feelings are not permanent - they can change from minute to minute, from anger to love.

Something that you say might be heard by another person in a hundred different ways which will be completely different than what you're actually trying to say. I think this is the point when a lot of arguments start. A good example to explain this case will be sending a package at the post office - if you send something overseas and a recipient will tell you only "I got it!" you won't really know what exactly they have, everything you put inside the box or maybe just half of it. I believe the same thing is true with talking to other people. For example, someone asks a child laying on the couch to put the trash out. The child says: I don't want to get up right now, I'll do it later. A person listening might hear this as I'm just too comfortable laying here. or Leave me alone, I don't want to help you! or I have a headache, I need to lay for a while. 

I've seen a lot of parents and people taking care of children who don't really understand why kids don't want to talk to them and share things about their lives while other parents say that their children can trust them, they can say everything they want and they'll always be understood. Unfortunately, they see this in a little bit different way than their children (more about this in the next paragraph). The child is coming to talk because they have some need - maybe it's that they're frustrated, they have problem, they're sad or they want to be close to someone.

If a 17-year old girl comes to her mom and says: I had sex with my boyfriend! and she'll hear something like: You what?! You're grounded! You're so irresponsible!  in response from her mother, she won't come ever again with anything so personal (or anything at all) or at least not for a long time. Next time she hears You can talk to me about everything, sweety! from her mother, she'll remember all the situations which showed her that it isn't exactly that way and she'll choose a safe exit which will be not sharing anything.
Another example - if a crying 8-year old girl says: I had a  fight with Mary! She told me I was stupid and that my mom was ugly so I hit her in her face because she was stupid, not me, and she shouldn't say things like this ever again! It's more than possible that this girl would hear in response something like: You shouldn't have hit her and anyone else! No matter what they say - hitting is not the way! This is very bad! You wouldn't like it if she hit you, would you?!  So the response is about what the girl did to protect herself and her mother and how bad that was in that mother's opinion, not about her current feelings: sad (she was crying), hurt, offended. Also, her mother showed her how much she disapproved what her daughter did and she even got angry. This kind of a situation is something that makes children be afraid of sharing anything with their parents because they know they won't be understood and accepted. Instead of being trusted and of having a feeling that they can trust as well, they'll feel taught, judged, instructed, commanded, disapproved, offended, etc.

I noticed that not only children but people in general test the listener by starting with the small and mundane thing to make sure they can trust the other person; to see their reactions; if the listener is interested; if they can feel safe sharing something more personal later. As soon as they feel well with the other person, they'll progress towards the more personal and risky problems that they'd never share if they were not heard while talking about small things. Sometimes the person who's listening effectively might be surprised by how deep the talk can go and how comfortable the person speaking can eventually feel. 

By being free to express all the feelings which are inside us, we can experience what we're talking about in a way that will allow us to think we're done with this already. Nathan gave me this example when he was with Alicia in the store and she said she wanted to just take a toy without paying for this. He told her there was a chance she'd get caught but he didn't say that she shouldn't do it or that she should put it back. He went "there" with her, allowing her to go as far as her imagination took her, and so she had a chance to experience how amazing it'd be to have the toy for free. Then she put it back on the shelf. I'm almost sure, because from what I've seen it's always like this, if he had told her to put it back and that stealing is very bad, she'd go back to those thoughts again and again. Now she doesn't have to because she already went through the whole experience of stealing the toy in her imagination.

Why would you use active listening?
1. To help another to solve their problems by themselves.
2. To build trust and a feeling of acceptance in the person speaking.
3. To show the speaker that you value them by offering your time and willingness to share their experience in your own words and expressions.
4. To make sure you understand what they are saying in the same way that they understand it (or as  close as possible).
5. When you see there might be something more; some hidden message underlying. 

What does active listening require?
1. You have to want to listen to what a child (or any other person) wants to say. You need to be prepared to spend some time on it.
2. You need to really want to help.
3. You need to trust that the person talking is able to solve their own problems.
4. You have to be sure you're ready to listen because things you'd hear might be difficult to take. You need to accept all the feelings someone wants to share; no matter what they are like - if they're shocking to you or totally different than your own; you need to stay with the other person without giving any advice or anything like this.
5. You need to forget about your problems and your opinions for some time to be able to fully listen to the other person.

What do I think about this? What have I noticed?
Active listening is a skill which doesn't come to anyone by itself and I knew it from the beginning. It seems easy but... it wasn't. I had a lot of problems with getting used to this but only when it came to me listening to things that were difficult to hear.

I must say I got used to Nathan active listening to me very quickly and now I can't imagine a different way of being treated. I feel very respected, understood and comfortable. He forgets about his reality to give me his time, words, emotions and expressions which show me how much he cares. Now I see how important it is because I found out I'd never tell all these things I told him to anyone else simply because I never felt safe enough (I had this fear of being embarrassed, judged, instructed, laughed at, etc). I feel like he wants to help, he wants to listen and he's there with me in my reality. I remember that once, when we were talking about this subject, he told me: Aga, it happened several times that you said something that shocked me but I didn't want to say anything because you'd stop sharing. And this is true - if I heard something like "how could you have done something like this?!" or if he would laugh or anything like this, I would stop talking. And this is what happens with other people too, I'm sure.

I had a lot of moments when I surprised myself. For example, I was very sad and was crying my eyes out with Nathan sitting by me, listening to every word I was saying with such understanding that let me say more and more and I ended up talking about something that happened in my childhood that was related to what was going on with me at that moment. After all I felt 10kg lighter! It wouldn't happen if I heard something like "Everything will be fine!" or "Aga, don't worry, everybody has problems!" Of course, I know that everybody has their own problems but when I have mine, I don't really care other people's ones because I focus on mine.

Moreover, I feel more comfortable talking about my feelings. People who knew me before knew that I wasn't that kind of a person who felt free to talk about how I felt. I was hiding. I didn't want people to see me crying (I can't count how many times I heard things like "Don't cry!" or "Here, I'll dry your tears!" - everything had an effect on how I was later; as if crying was something bad), I didn't want them to see I was weak, miserable, etc. I could express positive feelings, but not negative. Now I think it was because I didn't feel safe enough (like I said already) but I felt very overloaded while keeping all these things in my head. And I remember the time, at the beginning of 2013, when I had way too much. I finally exploded and it happened several times that I started to cry at work, in the middle of my conversation with clients who were very confused at that point. Now it's much easier for me to share my feelings because I know they're not bad. They're mine and they're something I'm not ashamed of, not scared of and I don't want to hide them anymore.

I also see how important it is for Alicia who's 5 years old and who's growing and learning from mistakes; bumping into things and crying; putting fingers in the cage and being bit by a hamster and then saying how much she hates him; being between her mother and Nathan. By using active listening she can be free to say everything she wants, even if these are things like "I hate this woman! I want to choke her with my hands!" She needs to say it, otherwise everything will be stuck in her mind and I know how it feels when there's a million thoughts that can't be said because other people don't want to hear them. I never judged her and I never repeated anything that I've heard a lot of times in my life (You shouldn't talk like this!; You shouldn't be so rude!; Now, stop saying that, this is not nice!; You need to be nice and friendly!; You can't say that you want to hurt someone! You have to think about what other people feel!) and this approach helped her to go deeper and deeper and I was amazed at least several times how it worked. That we can start with I always bump into chairs, I have such a bad day! and go through a lot of tears and I hate my life, it's so horrible, I feel like I have bad luck all the time and I just ruin your day right now because I'm crying so much and I'm so loud and I'm sure you have a headache already! to end up with Aga, I love you, you're the best! And then I know why she said it and I know it was honest and I also feel how close we are to each other then. Would it happen if I said I felt sorry and was sure everything would be fine? I don't think so. It's more likely that she'd stop talking and she'd just smile with disappointment which, by the way, I used to do a lot of times when I lost my hope that anybody would want ti listen to me.  

What kind of difficulties did I have?
But then what about moments when it comes to me listening? I created a list of things that stopped me.
1. It's difficult to listen to the other person and to go deeper with them when things are related to me because I got afraid what I'd hear later. If it was about what I did or said, I took things very personally and I couldn't forget about my things; about the need to defend myself because this is what I was used to for my whole life.
2. I had so many thoughts in my head that I couldn't chose one to tell. I wanted to say something correct and I didn't realize that this is not as much about words as about showing that I was there with the other person ready to listen.
3. I thought: this is so weird; all that sounds so different; if I talk to other people like this, they'll think I'm making fun of them.
4. I was thinking too much about what to say. The longer I thought, the more thought I had and the more emotions were going away...

Since the post is already long, I'm finishing now. Next time I'll give you some examples. If any of you want to try this way of talking to others, let me know what you think about this!

Talk to you next time!
Aga & Nathan

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