The Silent Symphony: Mastering the Art of Listening
Being a good listener is both a technique and an art form. In The Techniques of Active Listening, I discussed some practices necessary to actively listen. These included removing distractions, reflecting your interpretation of what you heard, asking questions to further understand, and validating the speaker's experience. If you've mastered the techniques discussed in the first article, let's talk about the art involved in actively listening.
As I mentioned in The Techniques of Active Listening, a skilled musician excels at executing the technical elements of music, while infusing their performance with intangible, emotional nuances not explicitly notated in the score. They strive to understand the significance and emotions of the music, and share that with the audience. In this way, a performance surpasses simply playing the notes on the score and becomes an emotional experience allowing the listener can connect with the performer.
Similarly, active listening should entail more than just hearing the overt message being conveyed. The listener should make an effort to comprehend the underlying significance and emotional nuances of the message as well, and express this understanding to the speaker.
LISTENING FOR THE METAMESSAGE
Mastering the art of listening includes tuning in to the metamessage, which involves deciphering the unspoken sentiments and hidden meanings of the message. To engage in deeper listening, focus on the speaker's tone of voice and the emotions they convey, rather than just the literal words. This also includes paying attention to symbolic language, such as the use of similes and metaphors. Simply put, I like to call it listening to a person's heart.
As you reflect back your interpretation of the message being sent, express an understanding of the metamessage as well. For example, if the speaker says, “Things are always changing in this job. It happens faster than I can keep up with,” the listener may say, “That sounds pretty chaotic. I bet you feel overwhelmed. Is that right?”
Reflecting in this way lets the speaker know that you are attuned to their experience and encourages them to express themselves more freely. It also gives them the opportunity to further explain their perspective if they aren't feeling completely understood.
BEING OK WITH EMOTIONS
The art of active listening also includes the ability to listen to strong emotions, such as anger, sadness, or fear, without taking them personally. When confronted with feelings that make us uneasy, we often try to change them or fix them. This can send the message that the speaker's emotions are being minimized or dismissed.
Don’t be afraid of strong emotions, even if they are about you. Instead of trying to change the speaker’s emotions, try to understand what caused them and what those emotions mean to the speaker. Asking open-ended questions is a great way to increase understanding.
Here are some examples of questions to help the listener explore strong emotions and situations:
Can you tell me more about how you're feeling right now?
What triggered these emotions for you?
Have you felt this way about anything in the past?
How would you describe the intensity of these emotions on a scale of 1 to 10?
What does this emotion mean to you in this situation?
What is this emotion telling you?
What can I do to help you deal with these emotions?
The techniques of active listening and the art of listening to a person's heart, when combined, become a powerful tool to enhance relationship, deepen connection, and repair misunderstandings. By learning and practicing the techniques and the art of active listening, you are well on your way to becoming a master listener.