Recently, I was invited to attend a talk at a friend’s church about how to communicate with your teenager and identify signs of depression. I don’t have teenagers yet, but I’m already panicked about the years to come. I figured, why not start over-analyzing everything now?
At the talk, I was surprised to learn much more than how to look for signs of depression in teens. I learned the ins and outs of active listening – what it is and how we can take care of each other better by being better listeners.
I thought my listening skills were on point, but as the leaders shared examples of not-so-great listening, I found that my listening record wasn’t exactly clean. At times, it was cringeworthy.
Armed with this new information, I went back out into the world expecting to meet (and quietly judge) an onslaught of crappy listeners. In every conversation I found myself in, I put my new listening skills to the test.
The results are in. There is a lot of subpar listening happening out in the world. More than once I’ve thought to myself:
Oooohhhhhhh. Now I understand why I’ve never been able to connect with you. You’re the worst listener ever! It’s NOT me. It’s YOU.
Sometimes simply naming things or putting words to them makes us that much more aware and able. Over the next few days, not only was I much more aware if people were listening to me, I was also much more aware of how I was listening to other people. It was simple to incorporate a few basic things and tune into how I was receiving and putting out information to the people around me.
I thought, “Why not share the wealth?” Here are some common listening mistakes we all make.
“I had the worst day…”
“Oh my gosh, I know can you believe that I got stuck in traffic for an hour and then spilled salad dressing all over my new pants and then…”
What may be an attempt to offer sympathy is often stealing someone else’s thunder. When someone is sharing with you their experience, don’t jump in to tell them how your experience outperforms theirs.
“I think I’m in the mood for….”
“No, I’m feeling like….”
“No, something a little more…”
When you complete someone’s sentences and try to rush them to their point or to their next idea, you’re not only being beyond annoying, you’re belittling their thought process, input, and experiences. Stop guessing, be patient, and you’ll get much more from a person when you’re not trying to drag them along.
“This work colleague is really giving me a hard time…”
“You know what you should do? You need to go straight to HR, but first write everything down. Then, set up an appointment…”
Maybe the person you’re talking to just needs to vent, to share their story, and in the telling will work through to their own solutions. As the leader of the talk so eloquently said, “Most of the time when someone is sharing something with you, they are not looking for solutions, they are reaching out for connection.” You don’t have to have all the answers.
“I think I overreacted driving today. A man cut me off and I totally laid on the horn.”
“You have the worst temper. Why would you do that? One of these days you’re really going to get yourself into trouble.”
Chances are if someone is confiding in you a mistake or a misstep, they’re already feeling pretty crappy about it. It’s not your job to pile on. When you do, you decrease the odds that they will share with you in the future.
“I really screwed up and forgot to send in the form on time.”
“It’s not a big deal. Who cares? You worry too much.”
You’re small. Your problems are small. That’s the message you’re sending when you downplay another person’s experience. When you do this, it doesn’t make the person feel better, it makes them and their challenges seem unimportant.
“I am so excited. I have this great idea for a business and I spent all day working on a new website.”
“That’s great. Don’t forget that starting a business isn’t easy. I’ve heard that 89% of online businesses fail in the first year.”
This is not one from the talk, but something I’ve noticed in my own experiences. If someone is sharing something new and you take on the practical voice of reason, poking holes in their plan, asking passive aggressive questions, and pointing out how little they’ve really thought it through, you’re not being a good listener. You may want to be helpful by offering them sage advice, but you’re not. Just listen. Let them run with it, and when they ask you for help, you can then impart all your wisdom.
The common theme here: poor listening shuts people down and prevents them from sharing.
I’ll repeat for emphasis: when you don’t listen, you reduce the chances of someone sharing with you in the future.
This is where I remind you that you don’t want to do this with anyone but especially not with teens.
So what do you do instead?
Mirror the person who is sharing with you. Follow their lead. Give them the time and space to share. The goal, especially with teens, is to keep the lines of communication as open as possible. It’s simple to avoid the roadblocks that keep people from sharing. You just have to listen.
Thanks to Narberth Presbyterian Church for holding this workshop and for opening it up to members of our community. I asked the facilitators of the talk if I could share this here with you and they said, “Please do!”