Have you ever been told that you don’t understand, even though you think you really do understand? Have you ever had a person tell you something over and over again and wondered why they felt the need to tell you again? If so, the reason is because that person did not feel truly understood. When we do not feel as though the listener understands us, we want to explain it again in order to achieve understanding. Once understanding is communicated, support is felt.
Often times we mistake “hearing someone” with “understanding someone”. “I hear you,” “I understand,” or “I got it,” are usually intended to communicate understanding to the speaker, yet often times the speaker feels unsupported or misunderstood. One of the most effective ways of increasing your understanding of what is being said, and showing that person that you truly understand them, is to practice active listening and reflecting feelings. How do you do this? I’m glad you asked.
Active listening is the practice of intentionally listening to the speaker, asking clarifying questions, and paraphrasing what you heard back to the speaker. When you are practicing active listening, you are not waiting to speak. You are trying to understand fully. If you have ever wondered whether you are in fact just waiting to speak, ask yourself if you ever have a good response in mind while the person is speaking and you are hoping they will stop talking soon so you can impress them with your comment.
We all want to be understood. The problem occurs when both people in a conversation want to be understood at the same time, which happens almost always. You can’t control whether the other person tries to understand you, but you can control how you try to understand the other person. And you can control putting your desire to be understood on the back burner. This won’t guarantee that the other person will reciprocate and try to understand what you are saying, but people are more likely to be interested in what you have to say once they feel that you have understood them first. This makes people feel cared for and supported.
So the next time you are in a conversation with someone who has a different perspective on an issue, try these steps:
- Put your desire to be understood on the back burner
- Listen to the speaker with the goal of understanding what is said and what feeling is being expressed
- Ask clarifying questions
- Paraphrase what you heard back to the speaker
- Tell the speaker what emotion you think they are experiencing
This is not the natural way in which we communicate with others in a disagreement, so cut yourself some slack as you practice this. It won’t go perfectly, and that’s fine. Also, try to practice these steps during conversations that are not heated or important. Practicing on mundane interactions will build up your skills and confidence so you can use these skills when it truly counts.
Shawn Healy, PhD