By Geoffrey P. Kane
In conversations, how much time do you spend thinking about what you’ll say next? If it’s a lot, what do others miss? What do you miss?
Rehearsing in our heads sometimes serves a purpose, but everyone may lose out if we don’t concentrate on, and respond to, what others are saying. Plus, rehearsing in order to make a good impression may actually have the opposite effect because preoccupation with our own stuff may come across as insensitive and self-centered. When we truly listen to another person and respond in ways that convey that we listened, understood, and care, then our respect for the person and their story feeds that person’s self-respect and sense of empowerment. The interaction itself helps them move through difficulties and contributes to a positive connection between us.
When another person describes incidents or feelings, it’s natural to recall similar incidents or feelings in our own lives. Yet it’s usually best to keep those memories to ourselves, at least long enough to hear and digest the other person’s account of their situation. Jumping in with our own experiences can abruptly shift the focus of the conversation to us and dismiss the importance of the other person’s narrative.
Brené Brown defines connection “as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” Rewarding connections are available whenever we encounter another person. Benefits derive from mutual respect, conveyed by words and body language, regardless of the duration of the encounter.
Listening is valuable, yet it can be challenging. For example, when someone shares painful experiences, such as losses, injuries, betrayals, or frustrations beyond their control, we may have powerful urges to comfort them, to attempt to fix their problem, or to advise them how to fix it themselves. These urges can be difficult to stifle, but holding back on them is important because what individuals in painful situations generally need more than anything else are witnesses who actually hear their distress. Bystander efforts to comfort them or fix the situation can detract from the important work of expressing their feelings.
If you hesitate to assume the role of caring witness, see if this statement by Harriet Lerner makes it more attractive. "Whole-hearted listening is the greatest spiritual gift you can give to the other person."
When effective listening is our primary objective, especially when someone else is troubled, it not only frees us from feeling obliged to make others’ troubles better, it also frees us from having to take a position on their troubles. We can respect, value, and support the person with no necessity to agree with or approve of their point of view.
Nonjudgment is another matter. People in general and distressed people in particular, whether they realize it or not, have difficulty accepting themselves as they are. When we interact with others, if we accept them as they are—which we transmit not just by what we say and how we say it, but by how we feel toward them at that moment—it boosts the others’ ability to accept themselves, thereby improving their ability to adapt and change if that’s what the situation calls for.
But what if we encounter another person whose beliefs or behaviors strike us as so unacceptable that accepting the person themselves seems impossible? One approach is to become extra curious about the person and elicit more and more information seeking to strike a chord that resonates with us, perhaps something about family, nature, pets, sports, or music. There are many examples of relationships, even marriages, where individuals respect and value each other despite dramatically different views on specific issues.
And finally, research in the field of motivational interviewing shows that people are less likely to make desirable changes in response to earnest persuasion than they are in response to earnest listening.
Geoff Kane MD, MPH lives in Brattleboro and served as Chief of Addiction Services at the Brattleboro Retreat from 2003 to 2023.