Focus on: Active Listening
Starting in the 1960s, the late humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers popularized "active listening," a technique for improving therapist-client interaction. To listen actively, you must demonstrably pay attention to the speaker: make good eye contact (but don't stare, which is always threatening); orient your body toward the speaker to show you are staying to listen; offer small expressions of attention, such as nodding or muttering "mm-hmm." And take or create a chance to ask questions that show you have been listening: "So you say your boss is acting angry lately. But are you sure she's angry at you and not about something else?"

This technique is not "natural" in conversation and, when carried too far, is easy to make fun of: "I hear you saying you are feeling anger. I hear your concern about my role in your anger. I care about how you feel." Far from assuaging the speaker, this intellectualized tone might just make him or her more angry! But skilled, caring active listening meets real needs: people need to be heard. We want to know that our concerns and messages matter to our audience.

For example, have you ever had someone ask you for advice and then reject it? "What should I do?" complains your friend and outlines a sticky situation. Trying to be helpful, you give it some thought and offer a suggestion. "Oh, I can't do that," says your friend, shooting down this idea -- and your next one and your next one. This is exasperating! Why did your friend ask for your time and help, only to reject everything you say?

The answer might be that your friend didn't actually want your time or your advice -- only your attention. But our society offers us no script for saying simply, "Listen to me for a minute. I don't want your advice or anything, I just want you to shut up and listen to me." Instead, when we want attention, we cloak it politely by pretending to seek help; that gets people's attention! But it also sets up expectations we may not be willing to meet.

Try this: For one whole day, every time a friend speaks to you (restrict this to friends, don't try to include strangers), use active listening techniques. Do this only with people you actually care about. Don't pretend to care if you really don't have the time or interest.

When someone you care about asks to talk with you or begins to talk:

  • Stop what you are doing, if you can; if you cannot stop, say so right away, and suggest a different meeting: "I am rushing to finish this now, but I want to talk with you. I'm free at eleven. Can I meet you then?"

  • Face the person with your face and body. "Orient" your shoulders, knees, and feet toward the other person, to show you are focused on them and not preparing to move away.

  • Make regular but not constant eye contact.

  • Actually listen, considering each statement.

  • Nod or make appropriate sounds to show the impact of each statement, but don't interrupt.

  • When the speaker pauses, interject with questions or comments, but not advice: "So he really said he was leaving? You must have felt terrible," not "That's an outrage! I hope you told him where to go!"

  • At the conclusion of the person's remarks, or when it really is time for you to go, conclude with a change in body language and words: "I have to go now, but I am glad you talked to me. I hope it works out. Let me know if you want to talk again." Use your own words, of course, smile, and move on.

  • As you have such encounters, keep in mind how you are feeling. Is this type of communication satisfying? Annoying? Regular active listening should help you to become more effective in providing attention and care, whether or not you have advice or solutions to offer.

  • Notice how your companion seems to feel: pleased by your attention? less desperate for attention? Many such Senders don't actually want advice; they need to know someone else cares, and they need to hear themselves think and feel out loud. By offering your undivided attention, you validate your friend's concerns. But not interrupting or offering advice (unless genuinely asked), you save yourself the trouble of having to decide what to say, and offer acceptance of the other person's ability.

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