Whenever someone comes to me and says that they need to talk or asks me to listen, I want to be the best listener that I can be. Listening comes in different flavors so I first ask what type of listening is desired or needed. I could be listening for the talker to give me some information. I could be listening to someone who is asking for an opinion. I could be listening to someone who is brainstorming solutions or troubleshooting a problem.
Or I could be listening to someone who is upset. The talker may want to work through their upset. They need a space where they can express what they are thinking and feeling. They need a space where they can express what they are feeling, to the level they are feeling it, for as long as they are feeling it. This flavor of listening is listening just for the talker – so that they feel heard and understood. When the talker expresses how they feel, and then feels heard and understood, the emotion dissipates, and the talker works through the situation.
To do the best possible job of this flavor of listening, several key pieces are required:
- All the listener’s attention must be on the talker. Eliminate any distractions for this type of listening. Silence your phone and other alerts from electronic devices. This is a time to find a quiet, private place where you can give all your attention to the talker.
- Listen for the entire message. We are typically pretty good at listening to a non-emotional, logical side. And we are typically terrible at listening to the emotional side. It is hard. We can get drawn into the talker’s story. Maintain focus on the talker – remember that this listening flavor is about them.
- Acknowledge the ‘right’ emotion. For the talker to feel completely heard and understood when they are upset, their emotions must be acknowledged. And it must be how they are really feeling. Acknowledging their anger as disappointment still misses the mark.
I had an opportunity to practice these pieces a couple of weeks ago – with a 2-year-old toddler. My daughter had a second baby in early November. When my 2-year-old granddaughter discovered that she couldn’t have her mother, whenever she wanted her, for as long as she wanted her, she was not happy. In one instance a full-blown temper tantrum ensued. I picked up my granddaughter and took her outside so that it was just the two of us. I let her cry and yell without interruption or telling her it would ‘all be OK’. I first said to her that it sounded like she was frustrated with having a new baby sister. When her tone didn’t change, I realized I had undershot the emotion. So, I listened harder and said to her, ‘You sound MAD at grandma and at mama.’ She paused, gulped, and stopped yelling. Even a 2-year-old understands when they are feeling mad vs. frustrated. She shortly stopped crying and soon we were talking about feeding the chickens.
The next time you are a listener for someone who is upset, shift to the flavor of listening that really works. They will feel heard and understood. It will support them in working through how they are feeling and build the relationship between the two of you. There isn’t a downside and the upsides are terrific – even with 2-year-olds!