In times of stress it can be easy to turn away from each other when the stress and tension becomes too much. When people are grieving, sadness can often come out as anger and fights can become common. In the wake of COVID-19, working, living and surviving under a single roof without the emotional release of space such weekend trips, date nights out, sleepovers with friends, even just a regular day of kids going to school and partners going to work is taking a toll on many. Many folks are recognizing that coping through this pandemic that will last well beyond the end of social distancing will require some new skills around engagement with those we love.
As a therapist, active listening is the hallmark of our practice. We listen intently for the meaning behind what folks are saying to both help them feel heard but also to truly understand what is underneath their pain. This is very hard to do if I am distracted or if I’m thinking about my own thoughts and feelings. When I work with couples I have the benefit to help them both increase empathy by teaching them ways to listen to each other and create more emotional space. When I work with teens I get to talk with parents about how to support their child. I want to arm you all with a helpful tool to be ready to support those around you and the many waves of grief that are occurring (that’s right, the anger in your home right now is grief).
What is Active Listening?
A communication technique that is used to facilitate conflict resolution requiring the listener to fully concentrate, understand, respond in a thoughtful manner.
Benefits of Active Listening
Build Trust and Rapport
Demonstrate Concern for Others
Increase Positive Connection with Others
Barriers to Active Listening
Also known as “Communication Blocks” actively listening to another person can be difficult if we are not grounded ourselves. Before you sit down to have a conversation make sure the following conditions are present:
You are calm, rested and fed
Turn off or put down distractions such as TV, phones, music and computers
You remain open to the person’s experience rather than your reactions
Let the speaker know you may ask them to slow down or repeat what they have said so you can make sure you are understanding what they are saying.
Active Listening Steps
1. Pay Attention and Focus on the Speaker
Nonverbal language such as eye contact is important
Focus your body forward facing to the speaker
Look them in the eyes, even if they look away keep your eyes in place so they find them when they return to you
2. Communicate you are listening
Use Silence, let the speaker pause and wait for them to continue
Use short phrases such as: “uh huh” or “I see” or (my favorite) “tell me more”
**Do not ask questions- just listen and let the speaker get the information out
3. Paraphrase: Find your own words to restate what you just heard
"What I’m hearing is…"
"Sounds like you’re saying…”
“If I’m hearing you correctly…”
4. Clarify: Invite speaker to explain or ask for clarification
“I’m not sure I quite understand, do you mean…?”
“Can you say more about…”
5. Reflect: Offer Empathy and Support
“It seems like you are feeling really sad…”
“I get the sense that you are really afraid of things not working out…”
6. Summarize: Integrate what you heard and was was communicated (not always needed)
“Let me summarize what I’ve heard…”
COVID-19 Active Listening Example Between Parent and Child
**This is just an example and there are no guarantees your child or teen will respond in this way. But pay attention to the simplicity of reflection and paraphrasing statements. Consider ways to integrate into your own language with your loved ones. You can NEVER reflect too much.
Child/Teen: “I don’t want to have mac and cheese again, why can’t we go out to eat?”
Parent (Paraphrase): "It sounds like you are upset about the choices available”
Child/Teen: “Yes, I hate being stuck in this house and I miss my friends and I hate online school.”
Parent (Paraphrase): “I’m hearing you’re upset that everything is different and you don’t like the change.”
Parent (Clarify): “Can you say more about your feelings of being stuck in this house?”
Child/Teen: “I just wish I could go to the skate park. I miss the freedom to drive around and do the things I used to do.”
Parent (Paraphrase): “Sounds like you really miss your independence and how things used to be.”
Child/Teen: “Yeah, this is all really hard.”
Parent (Reflect): “It sounds like you are sad.”
Child/Teen: “Yes, this sucks.”
Parent (Paraphrase/Integrate): “It sounds like doing the same things at home make you sad about all that you have lost. Sounds like you’re going though a hard time. Thank you for talking to me about how you are doing. I hope we can keep talking about what you may need to get through this time."
As I mentioned, this is a simplistic example though I have played parent, partner and friend to similar discussions and it truly never fails. The primary ingredient to a positive active listening experience is actually more about the speaker being grounded. When I am calm and present and have taken care of myself, those around me receive so much more love and care and attention. The one thing I hope you take away from this post is that we are all human and we all need relationships and connection. Sometimes if you are not getting the listening you want, try demonstrating to others by being an active listener. Demonstrate to others what you want done for yourself.