Thursday, November 14, 2013

Listening well

I have been accused at times of not being a good listener.  This is ironic because probably 50 to 60% of what I do for a living requires good listening.  In college we called it active listening.  Active listening is basically listening in such a way that the speaker feels heard, validated, and understood.  This comes quite naturally to some people.  These are often the people we feel comfortable going to for advice or for comfort.  For other people, active listening is more difficult; it is a skill they have to develop with practice. 

I probably fall into the latter category.  Naturally, I'm not the best listener.  I don't think I realized this when I decided to become a therapist.  If I had, I might have chosen a different career path.  Anyway, at some point early in my career I began to notice that listening was a struggle for me.  Even now, after years of consciously honing my active listening skills, it still takes a significant amount of effort.  I constantly have to remind myself to pay attention, to make eye contact, and to refrain from interrupting.  I regularly forget to validate a person's perspective before suggesting another way to look at things.  I frequently have to quiet the running commentary in my mind so that I can fully attend to what a patient is saying.  All of this is in addition to reigning in my overwhelming impulse to blurt out every response the moment I think it.  (Self censorship is another skill that doesn't come naturally to me.  I've gotten a lot better at it over the years though).

Because listening demands so much of my focus and concentration it also requires a lot of energy.  Talking to people all day may not seem like it would be exhausting but it really can be, at least for me.  When my husband and I first got married he used to call me as soon as I got off of work.  He always wanted to talk about some problem he wanted to solve or to ask my opinion about some decision he needed to make.  It felt overwhelming to me and it led to a lot of stupid arguments.  Eventually I had to ask him to stop calling me right after work.  I simply didn't have the energy right then for the kind of conversations he wanted to have. 

Fortunately my husband was willing to do this so it wasn't a big deal.  What's been a bigger problem for me is that I never get re-invigorated after working all day.  By the time my husband and I get home in the evening I just want to read or watch something online.  Like most normal people, my husband wants to tell me about his day.  This is perfectly reasonable and yet it is such a struggle for me to listen.  This is especially true if he starts a conversation when I'm in the middle of looking at something else.  My inclination is to keep doing what I'm doing.  Normally, I'd set aside this inclination, stop what I'm doing, and have a conversation with my husband.  When I'm tired, however, I don't have the energy to overcome my natural tendencies.  It takes will power to overcome an urge and will power takes energy. 

Does anyone else have this kind of problem?  Do you have any suggestions for overcoming it?     


  1. Have you tried an activity together like playing chess, or something, or taking a walk together, or painting or something, where you can both enjoy each other's company but not have to talk so much -- so you get to recharge and he gets to feel connected? A little hobby in common might help and be fun for both of you.

  2. Focus on what you good at, like feeling their pain, because words are often wrong and never tell the complete picture.


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