In a world where we have so many ways to communicate and connect it’s amazing how so many are so poor at communication. It’s a regular theme in my sessions that clients discuss different conversations and discussions within their life that go astray. Many times they talk to me about how they feel, heard, and understood in their counselling sessions but not so much in their personal life. This is not shocking to me.
My time in graduate school, studying counselling was spent learning to actively listen, to watch for patterns, to connect dots, and to help my clients understand the inner workings of their mind. These are not skills taught or learned in everyday life for many. Truthfully, active listening isn’t easy. Many of us listen to respond versus listen to understand. There’s almost this underlying current of waiting to defend our side versus understand someone else.
By merely understanding someone else we connect with them on a deeper level. They in turn feel more connected to us. It does not mean that we are then agreeing with them and switching sides, so to speak.
But what does it really take to actively listen, understand, and communicate? First I think we must – especially in a discussion around a difference of opinion – must put our thoughts and ideas aside. This is something that takes time to learn. Our ideas and opinions come very naturally and effortlessly, so noting them and quieting them while we listen requires practice. Next, it’s helpful to paraphrase what the other person said. Something like: ‘Let me see if I understand, you said…’ You can also summarise: ‘So it sounds to me as if…’
While doing these, make eye contact. Put your phone down and turn the ringer off. Turn off the television or your computer. It’s so normal in our world now to multitask, to have a conversation with a friend while scrolling through social media on our phones. In doing so we are, at best, only half listening. Honestly, we don’t multitask well. Research has shown that over and over, so put all the mild distractions aside.
You are going to find yourself naturally nodding, and utilising ‘encouragers’. Also add in some feedback, personal information, and ask about how they feel about it, especially when you can sense they have a strong emotion in regards to things. It is OK and helpful to input your thoughts and stories from your life that relate to what is being discussed. I have found it interesting that some people are under the impression that when someone’s story reminds them of something in their life that that’s not OK to bring up. It is, as long as it’s helpful, non-judgemental, and deepens connection. People want to know they are not alone in their experiences. It is not OK to shift the entire conversation to being about you.
Ask questions to get more information, to further your understanding of them and their ideas. Stick to ‘I’ statements as much as possible. Avoid sentences that start with ‘You’ and ‘You always.’ Those are fuel for a diesel fire!
A really challenging skill for some people is to allow those silences and pauses. These are natural, normal, and beneficial. I was taught in grad school that the silences are where a lot of work happens. I remember being very uncomfortable with those therapeutic pauses many years ago. Now I look forward to them in sessions. Those are the moments I know my clients are processing new information and ideas.
Let’s quickly review a few communications blockers. Please stay away from ‘why’ questions. They usually lead to a dead end road in my opinion. Drop any need or desire you have to provide advice or preach as well as the drive to dig. Digging is when we force certain information to control the path of the conversation. Managing that impulse to interrupt. If you feel it, take a slow, quiet, deep breath. And lastly please, please stop patronising. That alone is a major conversation killer, and the connection is lost as well as some respect they had for you.
Healthy, productive communication isn’t easy. But it’s so worth the effort!
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Tara Dickherber is a Licensed Professional Counsellor and a National Board Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist in St Charles, Missouri. She specialises in working with survivors of trauma and is the author of Laughter: The Best Medicine: How Humor Can Help Your Clients and Alleviate Burnout.