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
- 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.
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.