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How Do I Listen?

I had no idea that I didn’t know how to be a great listener until I saw my own (non-) listening patterns played out in so many of my dear family and friends’ attempts to support me in my grief 20 years ago.

I was floored. OMG, that’s what I’d been doing most of my life?

I liked to think of myself as an empathetic person, but how could I be, when I sucked at being a great listener?

Empathy vs Listening. First let’s bust up the assumption that we empathetic people are great listeners. Not necessarily. We’re empathetic, we care. But great listening is a separate skill that has to be learned.

Listening Is Key! Next, let’s look at the fact that listening is so key to successful consolation that without it, no matter how empathetic we are, almost anything we say to a sad friend will back-fire. But the good news is, once learned, these listening skills make us the helpful go-to support person for our grieving friends.

But wait, there’s more! Great listening helps in way more situations than with a grieving friend. It’s also a game-changer at work, in relationships, with family—in just about every meaningful conversation we have with another human being.

Meaningful convos. So let’s start with that word, meaningful. It’s important to distinguish the rules of casual conversations from the rules of meaningful conversations, as I explained in depth in my blog, Paying Our Respects with Respect.

If we try to do the culturally accepted habits of casual conversation—talking about ourselves with a little bit of listening and lots of advice and suggestions—then in the meaningful conversations that grievers need, we lose the opportunity to make a real difference, and a real connection.

How long was he sick? 😖

I know how you feel. I felt the same way when my mom died. 😖

Conversation over. Our grieving friend no longer feels safe sharing with us.

Three Steps to Good Listening. First, good listening starts with admitting to ourselves that we have a deep need to be heard and validated by others, too. We’re human, we want to be heard and seen.

Second, we must drop those very needs while in conversation with a griever. Which is why it’s called being of service. We’re dropping our own need to be heard in that moment and in that conversation, and we’re all in for our hurting friend.

Thank you for sharing yourself with me. 😊

I don’t know what to say except that I so appreciate that you’re telling me about what’s going on with you in your life right now. 😊

In casual conversation, we can expect to be listened to in some kind of 50:50 exchange of talking and listening. But if we carry this expectation into a conversation with a griever, we’ll be stepping on them at a time when they can’t give back to us.

Third, we allow silence. We don’t try to fill up the (sometimes awkward) silences in our conversation with sharing about ourselves. Instead, we keep that quiet space open for our griever so they can share at their own pace and in their own way.

Shelley Pearce, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, and Associate Professor at Santa Monica College, confirms this. “There’s an empathic heart connection that can happen in silent presence that doesn’t happen any other way.

“I think it’s important to understand that there’s a shift that most people are not aware of when someone is really being listened to. The deepest part of them that’s holding the suffering is allowed to safely come out a little bit and be seen.

“If you actually feel this shift—in the moments when there is a little tearing up, a softening of the face, a relaxing of the shoulders—that’s part of the healing process.”

Play Big in the Details. In our search for ways to make a big difference in life, so often it starts with the small steps, at a local level. When we can start seeing conversations with grievers, friends, family, co-workers, etc., as opportunities to listen deeply, we actually make a huge difference by this small and persistent act of the heart—the act of standing in witness while a friend mourns.

(If you’d like more info on how to offer helpful consolation, get my book, Condolences Pocket Guide: What to Say and Not to Say to Grievers, available on Amazon in paperback and e-book.)

To wrap up our exploration on the healing effects of listening, check out one of my favorite poems by 14th century Persian poet, Hafiz, who sums up my blog in under 20 words!

How Do I Listen? How Do I Listen to others?

As if everyone were my Beloved Speaking to me His Cherished Last Words. How Do I Listen?, excerpted from, The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master, translated by Daniel Ladinsky.


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Did I mention I have a book?

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