Growing up I was told by my father that I have the gift of gab. But that God gave me two ears and one mouth and I should use them in that order.
His comments likely came from needing a moment of quiet in a house of 4 kids and a talkative middle child.
But in my career as a social worker, I learned that listening is a skill that I needed to get good at. Because most of the time the healing came from being heard, and not from anything I said.
In University I would roll my eyes when yet again we talked about the importance of listening. I would think yea yea yea, but when are we going to get to the good part, when we learn how to really get to the heart of people’s issues.
But it never came. For weeks, we had lectures on different listening skills. We practiced, videotaped and watched ourselves listening and regurgitating what our partner said in role plays. I hated it.
But fast forward through a decade of supporting and counselling and would have found me sitting with practicum students emphasizing the importance of listening to people’s stories.
The term active listening is fairly common. It means to fully concentrate on what is being said rather than just passively ‘hearing’ the message of the speaker. I’ve even heard it be described as listening with all your senses. But I think these descriptions fall short.
To actively listen is to listen with curiosity.
Listening with the intent to know more. To explore. To intentionally seek out the who, what why and how of the person’s story. And to do that, you need to be actively engaged in the conversation.
So often we listen to find proof of our point. Or even more common is to be silent pretending to listen, but really be formulating a response in your mind. The person has barely finished their sentence before your rushing to get your point out.
Active listening is more than body language or repeating back what the speaker has said. Active listening is setting aside your agenda so that you can discover and truly understand the perspective of the person coming to you for support.
This past Christmas my nephew was given a gift that was wrapped-up at least a dozen times. Each time he unwrapped a layer or opened a box there was yet again another smaller box inside. In this particular gift, he found a prank joke in the final box, but then he was presented with a set of concert tickets to his favourite band.
When people finally get enough courage to ask for help it usually means an issue has been festering in their life for a while.
They have often been wrestling with this problem or issue for weeks, months or years. They have been facing the same struggle for so long that when they look around, it’s all they can see. There is layer after layer of issues, struggles, circumstances that have all compounded the problem.
As the person is talking, and you listening with curiosity to know more, The person is slowly unwrapping the layers and opening the boxes of their life. They are navigating their way through their story. If we interrupt this process with a solution to the problem we are interrupting the process of unravelling and getting to the core issue.
Active listening is listening with curiosity. Guiding the person with questions so they can unwrap and open boxes themselves, where eventually they will find the core issues, and hopefully freedom.
I have put together a cheat sheet of curious questions to help you guide people as they tell their stories. Click HERE, type your email and the cheat sheet will be in your inbox.