Think You’re a Good Listener? Prove it

-Holly Brown, LMFT

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, and this week I had the pleasure of attending Rosh Hashanah services and hearing a sermon on the value of listening. As a therapist, I listen for a living. But in my personal life, sometimes I can be a little lax.

I imagine that’s true for all of us: We can get used to thinking we know how our partners feel, and we don’t actually check it out. Here’s why that’s a mistake, and how to correct it.The sermon was about how, as a society, listening has become a lost art. When it’s all about monologue (and even a tweet can be a micro-monologue), that’s where we get into trouble. We disconnect from ourselves, each other, and our ideals. We screen out ideas that don’t agree with our own. We can become narrow and judgmental. We lose touch with our empathy.

I couldn’t agree more. So this year, the rabbi issued a challenge: Listen more than ever, and start with an exercise.

The exercise he recommended is one that I remember from a training I once attended. It’s deceptively simple, and very enlightening. It won’t take long, but it will take effort.

Sit with someone, allow them to talk for five minutes without interruption, and then tell them, in your own words, what you heard. Then reverse, and you’re the speaker, and they’ll be the listener.

During the training I attended years ago, as therapists, we assumed the paraphrasing would be a breeze. What we found was that we were often wrong. By paraphrasing and then inviting correction, we developed a deeper understanding of the speaker.

It was eye-opening. Often, we don’t check our assumptions. We’re too sure of what we’ve heard, and we then move forward with erroneous assumptions.

Think of what that means in terms of our relationships–if we’re habitually “listening” but coming away with the wrong understandings.

Try the exercise yourself, and you’ll see what I mean. Listening truly is an art and a skill. Don’t let it be a lost one in your home.

This is an exercise that can be repeated regularly–when there are disagreements, or just important topics where you really want to be understood. You can also use a version of it daily, by simply checking in quickly: “So what you meant is…?” Allow yourself to be corrected, respectfully. Correct your partner, respectfully. Your relationship will be better for it.

And move it outward, to other relationships, to your community. The world will be better for it.

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