The Beginner’s Guide to Listening

Featured Illustration: Ruby Jones

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In this pandemic, many of us have had only ourselves for company. We come to terms with many important things when this happens. Taking the time to really get to know a person, ourselves included, is something that we should all do with interest and sincerity. There is even more to learn if we spend time getting to know people, not just about them, but about us as well. Fundamental realizations await us, and they can be enlightening, tender, heartbreaking, or all three. 

As much as we might want things to work well in our relations, people will be difficult. No person is completely a bed of roses. The people we love are going to disappoint us at times, maybe quite sorely. Even the very best of us are not ideal, and to be in company with another person is to be negotiating imperfection every day. At the end of the day, we are all only human, and we might have to accept that those we love will hurt us, in all likelihood, even though they might not mean to. And we can also hurt them, without knowing. 

Does every relationship, every dynamic, have to then be an endless cycle of hurt, rejection, bitterness, and distance? Must we endure friction every time we face them? 

The answer is no. That need not be the case. This can be resolved, but it takes strength, patience, practice, a persistent belief that the person before us deserves our attention, and the humility to offer it with all the genuineness we can muster.

How do we go about doing this? To know people, we must let them come forward, and if they stumble, we must help. I have been trying to get better at listening to people. I have both failed and succeeded. I like to think I know people a little better now, but the truth is, this is something I have to work at all my life. People are complicated, and often, they are taught to be complicated — to bear their burdens silently or risk looking weak, and then be berated for suppressing what they feel. There are whole songs and dances we are taught when dealing with pain and discomfort. 

If you have been trying to negotiate the company of others, and are not quite sure how or where to start, I hope what I’m learning as I go along will be helpful to you. If you are a beginner to listening, here are some things that I try to keep in mind:

Be willing.

Trying to talk to a person when you don’t want to, or going into a conversation without an open heart and open mind, shows quite easily and they will most likely clam up further, or get even more nervous and anxious.

Ask, and ask again.

It’s not easy for people to be vulnerable. Most people will not open up the first time around, even if their sadness is written all over them. And some will never approach you with their problem until they feel safe, which means you have to be the one to approach them. So ask, and ask again, but remember not to push too much, it might not be appreciated. 

It’s okay to ask questions when you don’t know or understand.

Try to build empathy, be gentle. You won’t always understand where they’re coming from, especially not right away. Context is important, and always keep in mind that people are different. We don’t think and feel and approach the world the same way. Ask them open-ended questions, let them know you want to know, rather than pass judgment for their thoughts. Be neutral, yet supportive. 

Watch your tone.

How you ask is as important as what you ask. Your disinterest, fear, and apprehension will be reflected in your tone, and people are wired to detect anything that can be perceived as threatening. If you start to yell or take on an ‘attacking’ tone, the person you’re trying to talk to will either turn cold and unyielding, or they might become anxious and unable to express themselves. It’s crucial to go into important conversations with a clear, calm, and sympathetic attitude. If you’re angry or upset, it’s best to take some time to clear your mind. There’s no real conversation to be had when either or both parties are emotionally too high-strung.

Be attentive.

Most of the time, people don’t want solutions, they want your ear. And often they need to know you’ll listen before they know you’ll give advice. Establish yourself as a confidante before you establish yourself as an advisor. You cannot truly make helpful suggestions if you don’t listen well, and possibly, you could be part of the problem. Listen carefully. 

Have patience.

Not all thoughts get appropriately or adequately translated. Give them time. 

Prioritise acceptance.

It’ll be hard, but do your very best to see their side of the story. Try to read into what they say. Not every criticism is an attack. Sometimes, it’s a desperate attempt to point out something you might not have considered. You might not like what you hear, but try to take everything in stride, and truly think about what they have to say to you. 

Take notice of how they express themselves.

Not everyone is capable of expressing themselves well or the way you might expect them to. And we are not therapists. Take note of the smallest efforts they might be making to be heard. 

Know when to approach and when to let alone.

This comes through careful observation and practice. People have different ways to cope, but there are times we all want to recover on our own. It is healthy; don’t try to push someone who wants their space. Just make sure you are available on the periphery, and check in gently without being obtrusive. Some people are just naturally more disposed to need more time and space. For those of us who are empaths, it’s often difficult to understand that our consolation is not always needed. However, it is something that gets easier with time, and they will appreciate you for your understanding and patience. 

The same things won’t work for everyone.

Try different strategies, but don’t be pushy. Small expressions of understanding work quite well. Ordinary things like talking, leaving them notes, helping them with some task, giving them some peace and quiet, taking a walk or a drive with them, texting them to check in, making or getting them food they like, taking the time to do something with them that they like, or just giving them a hug — try what comes to mind. Seemingly insignificant actions to cheer them up and invite them to find comfort with you go a long, long way. This is often a trial-and-error method, we are bound to make a few mistakes, but that’s okay; people are not the easiest to figure out. All that matters is a genuine intention to put them at ease.

Just be there.

You can’t always do everything, but sometimes being there is enough. In the end, the biggest impact you can make is by sticking with them through thick and thin. 

Recognize mistakes and apologize for them.

You’re not always going to get it right. It’s human to mess up, but keep going. Be humble. Don’t let anybody put you down for trying, but sometimes an apology heals a few cracks. 

Take care of yourself.

It’s important to both of you that you don’t burn out. As Stephen Chbosky writes in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, “You can’t just sit there and put everyone’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love.” Make sure you are emotionally stable and healthy enough to tend to another person. You need to be in a comfortable, open, accepting state of mind, well-rested, and able to focus on other people, for which you need to focus on yourself as well.

If they opt for therapy, be supportive.

It might hurt to know that there are things in their world that you cannot fix, but sometimes we need to find new ears and new eyes. Let them seek out someone who can look at them objectively. That is something that is very hard for someone who has known them for a long time. If you’re a parent, partner, or close friend, you look subjectively at this person, and that hinders your ability to see them from a ‘removed’ perspective. If therapy is available and affordable, let them go for it. 

. . .

I hope we all become better listeners. It’s important to speak out, but just as important to step back and let others be heard. I believe in balance, and I believe that any act of kindness will be returned to us, in one way or another. I pray that we all learn to soften our hearts for each other, and learn that it’s okay not to walk alone, to lean in when someone offers comfort. A perfect world is not one without hurt, it’s one where the wounds are tended to. I hope we all work together for that world — one day, one outstretched hand, one gentle word, one friendly smile, at a time.