Over the course of the last 3 months I have really been wrestling with the question of “how good of a listener am I?” I’ve always thought I was a good listener…I mean, my vocation is essentially to listen to people all day. But I’m sure my clients….and my wife, would tell you that I’m also a pretty active talker. I am pretty open and share a lot with people. But honestly, how well do I listen?
This question all came about when I started reading Adam McHugh’s new book, The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction. Adam’s book really challenged me on this question of my listening ability. Because what I realized after reading his book, is that most of us are not that great of listeners. We may think we are, but at the end of the day there are so many ways we can grow in this area. I interviewed Adam on this topic in Episode 51 of this podcast. And after reading the book and talking with him, I really set out to become a better listener…and to continue to really grow in this area of my life.
One of the benefits of becoming aware of this issue, is that I started to think of creative way that I could help my clients become better listeners in their own lives. And so over the course of the last few months I have been encouraging people in relationships…specifically couples that I see, and parent child relationships that I work with…to try out what I call the 3 Day Listening Exercise. It’s actually fairly simple in its mechanics, but difficult for many in practice.
Here’s what it looks like in a simple breakdown:
- When I notice relationships having a hard time listening to each other, and even greater difficulty in validating one another so that they feel heard, I have been recommending this exercise.
- I ask couples to schedule 3 days of listening: That involves picking a 10 minute time each day, for 3 consecutive days…to work on this exercise. For example: “Let’s schedule 8:30pm on Tuesday night; 8:30 on Wednesday night; 9:00pm on Thursday night.” Something like this. And I urge couples to make it a priority by putting it on the calendar. Scheduling it reduces the anxiety of the partner who anxiously pursues engagement, and it reduces the anxiety of the partner who anxiously avoids engagement.
- Day 1: Designate one person the listener, and the other the speaker. The listener’s job is only to do that…LISTEN. Don’t think of a rebuttal; or a defense; or a question to ask; don’t finish the speaker’s sentences. Do everything you can to just listen and really hear what is being said. This also involves watching how you posture yourself, your facial gestures, etc…as those can communicate as much about whether or not you are listening. And avoid any of what John Gottman describes as the 4 Horsemen which are conversation killer…really they are relationship killers. The speaker’s job is to talk to the listener about something they want the listener to really get about them; to understand about them. Often I ask the speaker to just “share their heart” with the listener. I ask, “What do you want your spouse/child/parent/friend to really know about you?” Sometimes the exercise is used to talk about one topic (i.e. money, sex, work, parenting, etc.), but often I just use it get couples to begin to really practice listening to each other. Don’t get too caught up on what to talk about…it’s really about figuring out what you want that person to understand about you. And as the speaker, your job is to communicate in as effective a way to get the listener to really get you. So it’s not a time for the speaker to blame, or to criticize, or abuse the space the listener is giving them.
- Once you have done this, then set a timer for 10 minutes. Yes, don’t skip this step. Structure is important, especially for relationships that have a hard time emotionally regulating. And the more structure you practice, the more capable you will be in using more freedom later in conversations.
- Then start the timer and go. Once the timer goes off…that’s it! No extra conversation. No questions. Nothing. It’s important to learn to sit in that anxiety of not being able to respond, and to work on regulating your emotion. So when it’s over, go back to what you were doing.
- Day 2: This is a repeat of Day 1, but you switch roles. Do the same thing as Day 1.
- Again..it’s important to remember that this exercise is effective in that it stretches out conversation, helping people in relationships better understand each other; helps regulate emotion; helps people learn to sit in the anxiety of the unfinished conversation for now.
- Day 3: On day 3 you are going to do something different. You are going to set the timer for 15 minutes and now enter into a dialogue about what you heard each other say the last two days. This is really an opportunity to validate and affirm the other person, rather than an opportunity to talk more about yourself and what you want to share. One can really tell after watching couples do this, who is really interested in listening to each other…and who is really more concerned about just defending their positions, etc.
- The beauty in the 3 days is that it teaches patience in the listening process, and it creates a beautiful space in the relationship that tells the speaker, I want you to be heard and known. And the listener demonstrates the love and care they have for the speaker by creating a silent space to take in everything that speaker is saying.
That’s the exercise in a few simple steps. I recommend that couples, friends, parent/child, co-workers, not only do this one time, but that they repeat this exercise weekly, time and time again. Enough times that they eventually create a great habit that turns into a real natural way of communicating with one another. And I believe that if relationships practice this enough, they will see an increase in their emotional regulation and the feeling of being heard and understood. Give it a try and let me know what you think.
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