Two people sitting on park bench not talking

He came home from work and I asked the usual question: “How was your day?” He seemed excited as he responded “A good day”. “That’s good,” was my reply, then “are you ready for din­ner?” During dinner, we sat mostly in silence – the occasional look at each other. Neither of us went into any conversation around what we had done or what had happened during our day. Later in the evening, I asked “what is wrong – you seem very quiet this evening.” “Nothing,” was the response.

Sound familiar?

I had missed at least two opportunities to listen. If I replay the first question and response – what could I have done differently? How do I go back to that space? Perhaps I could have tried “I apologize, I noticed you seemed excited when you responded to my question about your day. I would love to hear about it”.

Listening is not the same as hearing. Listening is an inten­tional act of communication. We all have a need to be listened to. To be listened to helps us to express all our feelings and joys in both the saddest of situations and the happiest of the events that happen during our day and our lives.

What is listening? Is it a conversation? We all love having a conversation with a friend, with our partner, with our children, with our work colleagues. We learn about their day, their plans for the evening, how the game went, how was work or school. Most of those conversations are easy. Intentional listening may not be.

Let’s review some information:

You can speak at the rate of about 100 – 150 words per minute. You can listen at the rate of about 400 – 800 words per minute. The difference between those two speeds is called ‘lag time’

Lag time can be used creatively or destructively. To use it to stay with the individual and the story they are telling requires the listener to be very intentional. It is very easy to let our minds turn to our own story or experience that we could share back. This usually ends the storyteller’s line of thought. We are all guilty of doing this and often don’t even realize it.

This is very true with our family members dealing with trau­matic events. The storyteller has found someone safe to start to share a portion of their situation and if the listener is intent and able to focus during the lag time, he or she will be able to help the individual move to the next piece of the story. If the listener uses listening skills effectively, the family member may realize they have their own prior experience of coping to draw strength from. This is very intentional listening and requires practice. It also requires a sense of trust; security that the listener will not be judged. Is there ever a time to suggest coping skills? Likely, but the individual sharing the story will let the listener know if that would be helpful and it is usually best for the listener to attempt to ask appropriate questions, using empathy and paraphrasing to help the storyteller identify their own personal coping skill. This is truly difficult to do. Our Volunteer Family Guides continue to take training on listening skills and we try to practice, practice and practice.

Listening means paying attention to all aspects of communica­tion: words, tone, and body language.

I encourage you to think about being an intentional listener. It takes lots of practice. There are great books, information and workshops available. On our blog, please share your ideas or experiences (both the good ones and the not so good) on being listened to or being the listener, and watch for future articles on listening, empathy and communication.

This article first appeared in Spring 2016 newsletter.

Shirley Hickman