…is when people don’t listen. or don’t understand. or don’t appear to listen and understand – of course it can sometimes happen that someone has heard and understood me but hasn’t expressed it in a way that I understand. Say I turn up at your house and I say, “I had an awful journey, the traffic was terrible and some crazy driver cut me up and almost killed me” and you say, “Come on in, everyone else is here” – you may have heard my description of my awful journey and you may have even understood that I feel really awful, but you haven’t given me any indication that you’ve heard and understood and so I will end up feeling ignored and unloved; whereas if you had said (in a tone of voice that tells me you’re sincere), “oh dear, what a terrible journey, you must feel really awful after all that” I’d have felt heard and understood.
So it’s not just a matter of hearing the other person and understanding what they’re saying, it’s also a matter of conveying this to them, letting them know they’ve been heard and understood. This is a very basic human need, and if we don’t give this to each other we can’t have good dialogue. Once you know you’ve been heard and understood, you can be more generous and be ready to listen to the other person’s point of view; but as long as you feel you haven’t been heard, you’re not likely to be ready to hear someone else.
One of the things we learned in marriage preparation was about listening to each other. It’s a very simple technique, but it works wonders – and not just for married couples, but for any humans trying to resolve a problem. Here’s how it works:
Person A talks about how they feel about the issue. They use “I” sentences and not “You” sentences – e.g. “I feel ignored when you don’t put the rubbish out”, as opposed to “You can’t be bothered to put the rubbish out” – owning their feelings rather than accusing the other person and putting them on the defensive.
Person B listens without interrupting, for as long as Person A needs to speak. When Person A has finished, Person B tells them what they think they’ve just said, e.g. “You feel ignored when I forget to put the rubbish out” – so Person A knows they’ve been heard, and their feelings have been registered. (This is the point where Person A can correct Person B if they haven’t understood right – “no, it’s not that I’m angry about you having the television on really loud, it’s just that I get miffed that you don’t ask me before changing channels.” B: “Oh, I see, you get miffed not because of the volume but because I don’t ask you before changing the channel.”)
Then it’s Person B’s turn to speak, to express their feelings, and Person A listens without interrupting, and then says what they think they’ve just heard Person B say.
The feeling of knowing you’ve been heard and understood is an amazing feeling. Once you’ve got that, you can let go of being all defensive, and you can focus on trying to find a solution together – you’ve now got the necessary data to work with, because you’ve established what is actually behind the problem, what each of you feels about it and why. This is so much more constructive than the sadly much more common strategy people use, of each person talking at the other (or shouting at the other) in the futile hope that if you keep saying it, or if you shout louder, the other person will suddenly miraculously get what you’re talking about.
I see so much of this – people talking at people and not really listening, and even if they do listen, they don’t acknowledge what the other person has said, so nobody feels heard.
I’ve seen group discussions that, to me, look a bit like this:
a: I really think the price of eggs is too high now.
b: yes, that’s true. cheese is bad for your cholesterol.
a: you’re absolutely right. I wonder if it’s connected with the credit crunch.
c: but it’s really important to eat five portions of fruit and veg every day.
d: good point, we must avoid the Spanish cucumbers.
a: but the bankers are still getting such huge bonuses even though it was all their fault.
c: yes, the government really should reduce the tax on petrol.
I feel really frustrated when I see this stuff going on. I feel like yelling, waving a red flag and saying: excuse me, b, but what you said is in no way related to what a said, so you’re not actually having a conversation, are you? It’s just a series of monologues. A bit like Twitter, only we’re all sitting in the same room and looking at each other and our tone of voice indicates that we think we’re having a group discussion.
Yes, I started by saying how it bugs me when I feel I haven’t been heard and understood. But what bugs me even more, what really infuriates me, is when I see people do it to others.