The Naturally Good Listener

 

Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri, OCDS, Ph.D. CPC, Fellow: AAPC

Many people are naturally good listeners at least when they want to be. The naturally good listener has an active mind that summarizes what is being said.   This common sense process may center on three simple questions that are very helpful to anyone who wants to be a better listener. This approach is a synthesis of the keys to attentive listening because they are contained in the attitude necessary to sincerely ask these questions.

When listening, ask yourself:

“What is he/she communicating or telling me?”

  • This question moves the focus from the listener to the speaker and what is being said versus what the listener would like to say.

“What feelings might be involved?”

  • “Are the feelings what the speaker wants me to address?” The more the feelings are involved the more patience and understanding are required before a response can be made. The speaker must somehow come to know that these feelings are understood.

What response does he/she want from me?

  • This is the critical question that needs to be kept in mind because it involves the reason that the person is speaking to you in the first place.

What do you want from me?

People speak to us for a number of reasons and many communication problems stem from the listener’s failure to recognize what the speaker wants from them. The listener’s response might be quite true and good but it may not be what the speaker is looking for. Experience shows us that when speaking to another person people generally want one or a combination of the following responses.   The speaker generally may want the listener to do the following:

  • Just listen and understand
  • Console and support
  • Help Clarify
  • Confirm
  • Agree
  • Solve a problem
  • Act upon self or another

Just Listen and Understand

People always want to be listened to and to be understood.   This must happen for other things to follow. It is the most important response to give. When both parties feel mutually understood tension and discord are diminished. This is true even when the two do not agree. The likelihood of anger erupting is greatly diminished. A priest used to tell the story of how his parents never got angry at each other. At first I thought him to be naïve. However, he proceeded to describe how they conducted their conversations. He said that his parents did something that he had learned to do during his courses in philosophy. One of the rudiments of philosophical discourse is obviously debate. A basic component of debate is that the first party states a position. Before the responding team could offer a rebuttal they had to first state the position of the first party clearly and faithfully. The first party would then acknowledge whether the second team was able to express the essential elements of the first position. Also, in debate, the first cross-examination can only contain clarifying questions. These are the questions that allow the first party to elaborate on points that the listener needs to better understand. After this process is done, the first party confirms the proper understanding and then the rebuttal or opposing position can be presented.

It so happened that this young priest’s parents naturally did this. They always made it a point to understand each other before responding and making sure that their own understanding was consistent with what their spouse intended. As a result, even when they disagreed upon any point, neither party felt insulted because the other did not take the time to sufficiently understand them.

Console or support

People often want consolation and support. A burden seems lighter when shared by someone who cares. This combines with being understood to establish most of what people want most of the time that they speak about anything that is important to them.

Help clarify

People sometimes want to get things out so they can see them more clearly. In this case people simply want to bounce things off of someone else. They come to get some order so that they can make a decision or get their thinking straight.

Agreement or confirmation

People sometimes want someone to confirm that they are right. Sometimes people just want others to agree with them. However, understanding does not mean that one agrees. E.g. “I understand you feel like punching your spouse, but I do not agree you should do it.”

Help solve a problem

People sometimes want you to solve the problem. They want solutions and directions. This is the dynamic that causes the most trouble when someone tries to solve someone else’s problem when the person doesn’t want that kind of help. We will address this next, in “When solving a problem becomes a problem.”

Act upon myself or someone else

When someone wants you to change your behavior or to perform some action then they will know you understand because they see the action. They may want you to act upon someone else. E.g. A wife who wants her husband to do something to change the behavior of their son.   She will know that her husband understands when she sees that he has talked to his son.

A person may want you to do something about your own behavior. E.g. A wife wants her husband to be more attentive or to do things around the house. She will know that her husband understands when she sees that he starts picking up after himself, doing the dishes, cooking, helping with the laundry and whatever other tasks may be on the list.

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Keys to Listening

 

Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri Ph.D. CPC, OCDS

Listening is a simple and natural skill that can be very easy for some people and at times very difficult for many people. The more carefully we listen the better our chance to understand. Distractions, bias, impatience and our own personal frailty may make it more difficult to listen well at times. A good disposition for listening contains at least some of the following qualities:

Attentiveness

Nothing communicates love like ones full attention to another or the attentiveness, which notices a person’s needs and disposition.

Willingness to understand

Understanding is always preempted in time and importance by the willingness to understand. One may not understand but their will to listen helps them to be attentive and make efforts, which edify the speaker.

Open-mindedness

Open-mindedness is an important part of prudence and one must keep an open mind while listening even when disagreement is likely or already present. Without it the listener tends to close out the speaker and understanding becomes very difficult.

Self-control

One must control one’s own mind while listening in order to stay with the person’s reasoning. This means keeping emotions in check as well as not thinking about a response while waiting for a breath in order to interject. When we think about our response we tend to stop listening to the speaker. We think we understand because the words are familiar but the meaning may be different for the speaker than for ourselves.

Patience

It is difficult at times for someone to find the words to express themselves. They may also be saying something that annoys us and patience helps us to listen.

Sensitivity

We must watch the face and body of a person while they are speaking. Much can be expressed physically that does not show in the words alone. It is not only what is said but also how it is said. Emotions may play a part and we have to consider the feelings that might be involved.

What do you want from me?

 

Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri Ph.D. CPC, OCDS

People speak to us for a number of reasons and many communication problems stem from the listener’s failure to recognize what the speaker wants from them. The listener’s response might be quite true and good but it may not be what the speaker is looking for. Experience shows us that when speaking to another person people generally want one or a combination of the following responses.   The speaker generally may want the listener to do the following:

  • Just listen and understand
  • Console and support
  • Help Clarify
  • Confirm
  • Agree
  • Solve a problem
  • Act upon self or another

Just Listen and Understand

People always want to be listened to and to be understood. This must happen for other things to follow. It is the most important response to give. When both parties feel mutually understood tension and discord are diminished. This is true even when the two do not agree. The likelihood of anger erupting is greatly diminished. A priest used to tell the story of how his parents never got angry at each other. At first I thought him to be naïve. However, he proceeded to describe how they conducted their conversations. He said that his parents did something that he had learned to do during his courses in philosophy. One of the rudiments of philosophical discourse is obviously debate. A basic component of debate is that the first party states a position. Before the responding team could offer a rebuttal they had to first state the position of the first party clearly and faithfully. The first party would then acknowledge whether the second team was able to express the essential elements of the first position. Also, in debate, the first cross-examination can only contain clarifying questions. These are the questions that allow the first party to elaborate on points that the listener needs to better understand. After this process is done, the first party confirms the proper understanding and then the rebuttal or opposing position can be presented.

It so happened that this young priest’s parents naturally did this. They always made it a point to understand each other before responding and making sure that their own understanding was consistent with what their spouse intended. As a result, even when they disagreed upon any point, neither party felt insulted because the other did not take the time to sufficiently understand them.

Console or support

People often want consolation and support. A burden seems lighter when shared by someone who cares. This combines with being understood to establish most of what people want most of the time that they speak about anything that is important to them.

Help clarify

People sometimes want to get things out so they can see them more clearly. In this case people simply want to bounce things off of someone else. They come to get some order so that they can make a decision or get their thinking straight.

Agreement or confirmation

People sometimes want someone to confirm that they are right. Sometimes people just want others to agree with them. However, understanding does not mean that one agrees. E.g. “I understand you feel like punching your spouse, but I do not agree you should do it.”

Help solve a problem

People sometimes want you to solve the problem. They want solutions and directions. This is the dynamic that causes the most trouble when someone tries to solve someone else’s problem when the person doesn’t want that kind of help. We will address this next, in “When solving a problem becomes a problem.”

Act upon myself or someone else

When someone wants you to change your behavior or to perform some action then they will know you understand because they see the action. They may want you to act upon someone else. E.g. A wife who wants her husband to do something to change the behavior of their son.   She will know that her husband understands when she sees that he has talked to his son.

A person may want you to do something about your own behavior. E.g. A wife wants her husband to be more attentive or to do things around the house. She will know that her husband understands when she sees that he starts picking up after himself, doing the dishes, cooking, helping with the laundry and whatever other tasks may be on the list.

 

 

 

 

Four Phases of Listening Well

 

Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri Ph.D. CPC, OCDS

1)      Understand what the speaker is saying

This applies to the literal content and the personal intentions or meaning on the part of the speaker.  Listen intently to what is being said.  Taking notes will help capture the literal expressions and enable clarification of meaning.  One can then ask clarifying questions.

When as student takes notes in school they focus upon what is being said by the other person.  They are intent on understanding.  They are not concerned with giving the teacher/superior direction.  They are careful to be exact to grasp to meaning that is intended by the speaker.  They would ask questions to clarify their understanding.  They would reflect upon the implications of the information and how it relates to other things that they know.  They would study it later and draw conclusions. This is the exact same process for understanding someone who seeks counsel. 

2)      Clarify the speakers meaning

On page 157 we referred to an aspect contained in parliamentary debate, during the first cross-examination, at which time there are no rebuttal arguments presented.  Rather, one may only ask questions which help to clarify the affirmative speakers meaning.  There is often a confirmation question, which solidifies the understanding.  This is the essence of good listening skills and is at the heart of 95% of counseling interventions.  In a relationship this will greatly reduce anger because each person will feel that the other person is listening and understanding them even if they do not agree. 

The ability to express the speaker’s meaning in reasonable terms and manner fosters the feeling of being understood in the speaker.

3)      Ascertain desire of the speaker

The next critical point is to ascertain what the speaker wants before responding.  The first two phases are the most important and will have the greatest impact upon the speaker.  It will bring the majority of healing and consolation.  However, the most common practical problem lies in responses by the listener, which are inconsistent with the desires of the speaker.  People often understand what the other person is saying but fail to grasp why it is being said and what is wanted.  As a result the response causes problems and produces a sense of misunderstanding.  E.g. Husband, “I understand you.”  Wife, “If you understood what I was saying, you wouldn’t respond that way.”  There are many wonderful and loving responses that are frustrating because they are unnecessary.  Thus the point here is to ask the speaker to state what they want and why they are saying what they have said.  Until this is clear, it is usually unwise to offer a response.  

4)      Respond in conformity with the desire

Once it is understood, one may respond appropriately.  If it is not possible to respond as the speaker desires some discussion or explanation would follow.  A prudent step in this case would be to ask for some time to reflect on the matter.

 

Willing and Attentive Listening

    Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri Ph.D. CPC, OCDS

Willing and attentive listening is the central dynamic of communication skills.  The primary concern is the speaker and what he or she is trying to communicate.  Listening enables one to see situations more clearly and thus help another person.

We know that one’s emotional disposition improves from being understood. When something is expressed its intensity lessens.  Solutions become clearer when someone else listens to the problem.

Good listening facilitates better understanding.  This enables someone to respond in a way that shows he/she understands.  New information and opinion are secondary to understanding what the other person is saying.

Listening expresses love for the other person.

Listening shows the importance and value of the other person.  It is a form of courtesy and respect.  We can easily see the therapeutic value that it has when we consider that the counseling profession is dominated by this one dynamic.  People come to a counselor so that they can find understanding.  The counselor listens with the major objective of grasping what the client is saying.  This principle dynamic begins to assuage the stress that the client is experiencing.  It helps when one can express themselves, can be understood by another, and that the other person can put that understanding into their own words.

Listening well acknowledges a respect for human dignity.

We can show that the person is worthy of our full attention and all else seems secondary at the moment.  When my son was very young he would approach his mother or me as we were focusing upon something else and want to talk to us.  However, he would not begin speaking until he had our full attention.  To accomplish this, he would place his little hands on both sides of our face and turn our heads toward him so that he could look us square in the eye.  If we slipped back, he would repeat this.  He tended not to do this in front of others so there wasn’t any reason to correct him for interrupting and he was so sincere and what he was asking for was simple.  “I want your attention. What I have to say is important.”  He was right.  It was important because he was important to me.

A further example is obvious to married couples.  If a woman has something to say, she is rarely impressed with her husband’s allocation of some cursory portion of his attention while he is preoccupied with the TV or the newspaper.  Women and children have a gift for reducing something to its simplest form.  “What is more important to you, what you are doing or me?”  “If it is me, then show it.”    However, when it comes to love and what is valued, actions still speak more loudly than words.  It is important to express one’s devotion with words but those words must be demonstrated through affection and actions.  The first act of love is attentiveness.

Active Listening

    Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri Ph.D. CPC, OCDS

Active listening is a very popular concept, which we often hear about.  A brief description of one approach is presented here for a point of reference and information.  Again we will find the components to be quite natural to a good listener.

Focus on the person and what is said; minimize outside distractions.

Watch the nonverbal expressions.  Ask yourself, “How is it said?” “What is the facial and body language?” Remember that it is difficult to put emotions into words.  Emotions are naturally expressed in body language and it is easy to misinterpret expressions and body language

Accept the person even when what is said is not accepted.  Understanding does not mean agreement with the other person is saying.  For example, one may understand how a person came to commit a crime but not agree with the decision or the rationalization. The acceptance is first toward who the person is and secondarily for what they do.  Eventually, though, we know that when what one does becomes habit and habit forms character and character defines what we have become.

Remain open-minded to what is being said even if you do not agree.   This allows you to hear more, consider and understand their point of view better.  It helps to look for the good in what one is saying or for those things that seem reasonable.  If one disagrees try to understand how the person came to the position that they hold or what good that person sees in their position.

Verify what you understand.  Do not presume and jump to conclusions based upon your own experience.  Don’t guess without verifying.  There is a danger of transferring your emotions into their meaning.  Therefore, try to confirm what you think is being said.  It is common for your perceptions/conclusions/emotions to differ.  People respond differently to the same stimuli.  It may help to repeat what the other says if necessary.  A natural response is to try to put what they are saying into your own words.  Sometimes say exactly what is said.

Look for positive interpretation.  Everyone acts intending some good so it helps to try to see other person’s point of view and meanings

Understanding Comes Through the Sincere Gift of Self

“Man’s desire to find himself can only be fulfilled through a sincere gift of himself.”[1] John Paul II

Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri Ph.D. CPC, OCDS

John Paul II repeats the proclamation of Vatican II that “Man’s desire to find himself can only be fulfilled through a sincere gift of himself.”    It is through giving oneself sincerely to another that one comes to see oneself in that person.  When Adam said, “Bone of my bone . . ., “ it was a way of saying, “Now, I see myself.  I have an equal to whom I may give myself.”  One pours oneself into another and then sees himself or herself in that person.

Understanding involves the gift of some knowledge of our self to another and the reception of the gift of some knowledge of the beloved.  Marriage is a mutual complete giving and receiving of persons.  The family reflects this in the appropriate sharing of family members.

An understanding person recognizes the various factors that influence feelings or behavior.  He studies each of these factors and how they relate to one another (and encourages other people to do the same), and in his behavior takes these factors into account.[2]


[1] John Paul II, Letter to Families

[2] David Isaacs, Character Building, (Dublin: Four Courts Press) 1984, p 240

“Grant that I may understand”

    Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri Ph.D. CPC, OCDS

Understanding is the most important element of counseling, without exception.  It is the quality that is most expressive of love and which allows one to share in the state of another and thus the primary means of healing.  The direction that is then provided by the pastoral counselor is also of critical importance and is often be essential for healing.  However, good counsel is first dependent upon proper understanding.  The guidance which reflects the greatest understanding of the person, their situation and the Truth, will be the one, which most prudently contributes to the person’s health & happiness.  Therefore, the counselor must focus upon understanding the person and their situation within the context of reality.

Then help the person to understand himself or herself and feel understood.  It will likely follow that someone else must be helped to understand.  And that will be a common task in family or relationship counseling.  Thus the first objective will be to help the listener understand and express that understanding.  All else is secondary and nothing else is as important.  One must understand what it is that the beloved wants to be understood and then understand what response the beloved desires.  Getting people to recognize this process, slow down their reactions to one another so as to reflect upon what is being said and not only gain a better understanding but choose the responses and selection of words better, and breaking the dynamics that take place are the most common work in interpersonal counseling.

Understanding is an intimate knowledge, penetrating to the essence.  It involves a mental grasp, a comprehension. To say, “I see,” communicates that I have a complete knowledge.

Understanding is the most important expression of love.  It is a form of charity, the highest of all loves.  It is the most important gift that can be given because all persons desire to understand themselves and to know themselves.  Self-knowledge only comes in relationship to others.  One comes to know oneself through one’s relationship to God, relationship to spouse or relationship to other people, family, friends and society.

Talking

Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri, Ph.D., CPC, OCDS

Talking is the paramount social quality.  People like to talk and at times need to talk.  It is the way that most social interchange takes place.  People entertain themselves in conversation with one another and discuss whatever topics arise in mutual interest.  One of the basic principles for making new friends is to find out what someone is interested in and getting them to talk about it.

Sometimes people need to talk.  It may be that there is something that they want someone to know or to do.  It can be that they have feelings that they want to express.  Sometimes there are painful memories that talking helps to soothe and heal.  When one can express a hurtful thing they feel better because the hurtful thing is less intense when it is expressed into words and when someone else can hear and offer sympathy and support.

The key ingredient to sociability is to draw the other person out by showing that we are sincerely interested in them.  This is usually done by finding out what the other person is interested in and getting them to talk about it.  This tends to create a sense of warmth and acceptance, which, in turn, creates an environment of trust, which helps the other person to relax and be more open.  As the listener then we may share something of ourselves that relates to what has been said, but with the spirit of supporting or showing further interest in what the speaker is saying.  This would be contrasted by the tendency to pull the conversation away from the speaker and focus upon oneself.  As the focus of attention on oneself increases, the other person may feel less important and may become more passive.  There are of course, many who simply like to listen and others who like to talk.

Thus, what is most common, is that these two types of people get together and one talks and the other listens.  Yet, even the listener needs someone to listen to them.  There are too many people who have not had someone who took the time to listen and take an interest in him or her.  Talkers may have such a good time talking and enjoy revealing their own ideas that they never stop to think about who the person is that they are talking to.  They may never stop to get to know the other person.  The other person may have listened to everyone else’s life stories and feelings but those same talkers never took the time to listen to them.

A typical example was young college age woman who listened to several friends as they spoke about their problems and feelings but when she needed them to listen to her, no one was there.  None of the friends took an interest in what she needed to talk about.  One friend started to listen but quickly turned the subject to herself and the young woman’s needs were totally lost.  This produces a sense of loneliness and isolation.  When one says, “I have no friends,” it may be that they do not have someone who not only shares mutual interests but one who possesses a mutual interest in them; someone who wants to know them and is interested in what they are saying and need; someone who cares enough to take the time to listen; someone who wants to take the time to form a relationship. We see, then, that there are other qualities involved in good communication skills.