COLUMN: So, who’s listening, anyway?

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By John Lapp

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone, whether spouse, friend or family member, and you just knew that the person you were addressing was not listening, yet they were looking at you the whole time you were talking? Well, when this happens it can be a mild or major source of irritation, even anger.
Most respondents when asked whether or not they communicate, will answer that they believe that they can and usually are able to talk. Yes, that is a major portion of what is included in a conversation, but what if both are only talking, but maybe neither of them is listening?
This seems to happen too often when the discussion is between marriage partners. And probably, it can happen more often when the topic is one they have had before and it is still not resolved. Maybe they began this time, even attempting to talk in a more pleasant manner but, again, as it was the other times, frustration mounts because one feels “I can’t seem to make him/her understand, so why bother trying?”
Listening skills are basic while attempting effective communication and developing good relationships. In my office, over the years of doing marriage counseling, I have asked a couple to communicate with each other by choosing a topic which has been difficult to resolve.
They face each other in order to pay more attention to body language. As I proceed watching the body languages and hear whether or not listening is an active part of the conversation, I will routinely, yet politely, interrupt what seems to be an area that needs to be addressed and ask, for example, “when your partner said that, why did you respond in the way I just observed?” Or, I will even address to the one presenting, “are you aware of how your voice changed, and seemed to be more aggressive/passive than it was before you stated that?”
While I address this with couples, I will also address it when doing family counseling with parents and their children in attempting to develop better communication skills as it relates to the area of listening. Even the person who has told me in advance of counseling, “I have trouble communicating” will eventually discover that they usually know how to talk, but it takes both areas, talking and listening, to make communication be most effective.
It has also happened on many occasions that when a child has come home from school, and displayed some anger or other not-so-expected emotion, that the parent will ask “what’s wrong with you?” The response will include something similar to, “I got in trouble today at school, the teacher/coach got mad at me, and I don’t know why because I didn’t do anything.” To which the parent responds, “You must have done something that got you into trouble, so why don’t you tell me what it was that you did that caused the teacher/coach to do that.”
Still the child has no acceptable explanation and, although he may have done something wrong, the parent will try to tell what he/she needs to do in order to address the situation. Perhaps a better response would be, “Is there anything I can do to help you deal with this, maybe what to ask the teacher/coach to explain why you were reprimanded, although you don’t believe it was justified?”
Maybe there is nothing that needs to be done, and the child will get over it without any assistance. Employees have felt the same way over some injustice that seems to be unfair/undeserved, but the overall thing that he/she will decide to do is nothing.
A person with good listening skills will be more effective by saying something like, “I’m sorry that this happened, and it is sometimes not fair, but I hope that you can get past this since it can happen to any of us ... maybe you can still have a good day, how about a hug, or maybe a treat of some kind.”
Often when two people are in the process of talking with each other, what is often felt is “how can I best help this person?” So solutions are offered without solutions being requested or, in fact, needed. Just listening is all that is needed — “Someone is hearing me unload my feelings/frustrations ... that’s all that I need.”
Another factor in the development of listening skills, is any of the following: my mind is preoccupied; what you say does not seem all that important; I usually already know what you are trying to tell me; you don’t listen to me, so why should I listen to you?; I usually can’t figure out what you’re trying to say anyway.
It is often also stated that when I think you do not listen and understand what I want to get across to you, I...
Feel isolated and lonely...
Get resentful toward you...
Often feel depressed and hopeless...
Withdraw into myself...
 And then, worse than the above, I seek out others who will listen and understand.
(This can be the beginning of wanting to be with and converse with someone who cares, maybe someone of the opposite sex, and could be the beginning of something you really don’t want to see happen.)
Maybe you need some help in learning how to develop listening skills, or even how to at least learn some ways to focus on the importance of not just hearing, but attending to what is being said, and even why. Listening skills can be taught and will improve every relationship that matters to you. Don’t let a potentially good relationship end without at least trying to develop this area of your life.
For more information, 477-2818.