Monday, January 6, 2014

Prompting Others to Actively Listen

We have come to the final chapter of my Active Listening Primer! If you've been following along and practicing your new skills in day to day life with the people you care about, you may have started running in to a frustration that my hotline volunteers and the folks I coached through challenging conversations also encountered. Sometimes, what you really need is a demonstration that what you are saying is understood. When you work so hard to convey empathy through reflective communication and careful listening, it's especially hard to not be treated in kind.

So, how do you get someone else to actively listen to you?!? 

You really can't make anyone else listen, but there are some things you can do or say that will increase your chances of getting the kind of feedback you desire. First, keep on using active listening skills, yourself. If this is a recent change in the way you interact with others, it takes time for others to respond to a new way of communicating and your demonstration will be a model for others to follow.

If you are intentionally trying to use more active listening with someone in particular, especially someone you are close to (like a spouse or sibling) or someone you interact with a lot (like a coworker), it may be useful to have a direct conversation about the way you communicate. For instance, you could ask that you both agree to use active listening whenever you have something important to discuss and then share the resources you've found useful for developing your own active listening skills.

For those times that you are already in the moment and you need to feel heard, there are some prompts that I have found useful in getting the feedback that demonstrates my feelings and perspective are understood. Apparently, I've been using these kinds of prompts often enough that my 3-year old has started using them herself (got to love those little living mirrors!). We had this exchange the other day:

Cadence: "I have tears!"
Me: "I see your tears! It looks like you're feeling sad."
Cadence: "Why am I sad?"
Me: "You're sad because you can't have a cookie right now. Is that right?"
Cadence: "Yes, that's it. You said I can't have a cookie."

There were a few more tears, but after a little cuddle, Cadence moved on to playing. It was pretty cool how she was able to prompt me through reflecting her feelings and perspective. Here are some ways that you can do the same:

Prompt for reflecting feelings: "Do you understand that I'm feeling _____, right now?"

This kind of prompt lets the other person know how you're feeling and invites a response that acknowledges your feelings. It does requires you to be clear about the way you are feeling and willing to articulate it, but it's very effective for getting on the same page with regard to your emotional state. Here are some other variations:

  • "I'm feeling _____. Is that clear?"
  • "I think I'm feeling _____. Does that make sense to you?"

Prompt for reflecting content: "I'm not sure we're on the same page. Can you tell me what you understand so we can move forward from there?" 

This is a great strategy to use when the other person shifts the conversation to his/her own perspective before acknowledging yours, says something that demonstrates you are not understood, or seems genuinely confused. It will prompt the other person to paraphrase what has been said so that you can be clear on what is or is not understood. It also shows that you are taking responsibility for making sure that your own communication is clear. Here are some other variations:

  • "I'm not sure whether or not what I just said made sense. Can you please repeat back to me what you heard?"
  • "Before we move on, I want to make sure I've expressed myself accurately. Can you tell me what you think I'm saying?"

As you use these prompts, note that it does put the other person on the spot, which can be rather uncomfortable! Your tone of voice and reaction to the response will go a long way to cultivate the safe environment needed for active listening. Continue being honest and gentle, honest and gentle, honest and gentle...

This concludes the Active Listening Primer series; I hope you enjoyed it! You can use the links below to revisit and review other topics in the Primer.

The Active Listening Primer

Part 1: The Active Listening Mindset
Part 2: Basic Active Listening Skills
Bonus: Prompting Others to Actively Listen (you are here)

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  1. Mean Mommy, not letting her have a cookie. ;)

    I feel I am misunderstood more than I'd like in my relationship because we can communicate in such different ways. I can be much more abstract and use a lot of references, comparisons and associations and he's very logical, to the point. I can be very logical (otherwise I don't think we'd have made it this far!) but not always and he gets visibly frustrated and exasperated. I take more time thinking before I speak with him than, say, my mother, so that this happens less but it sometimes I'd just like to say what I'm thinking!

    This was a great series Mary!

  2. You made me think of an Ani Difranco lyric, Rayna: There is strength in the differences between us and there is comfort where we overlap.

    And I feel ya! It's downright strange to find a romantic partner and then realize, at some point, that you don't quite speak the same language. But the work you put into communicating makes it all the richer - that's my experience, at least. (And makes you *really* appreciate the people in your life who just *get it*, no matter how abstract or convoluted you're being.)

    Seriously, thank you for reading!

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