Communication problems are probably the greatest barriers to happy and
healthy relationships. Somewhere in the exchange of thoughts and
information something goes wrong. Words come out one way and are meant
another. What was said is not interpreted in the way it was intended. Some thoughts should have remained silent. Some thoughts should have been expressed. You expect to be heard and understood, but somehow you are not and you wonder what went wrong. Communication problems can leave you feeling exhausted and frustrated. And sometimes you might want to scream, "Did you not hear me? Why do you not understand?"
I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.
If communicating only involved talking it might seem easy enough. But it is not that simple. A major and essential part of communicating involves listening. Everyone wants to feel heard and understood. When we speak we want to know we have someone's undivided attention and proper respect. We want to be accepted and not judged for what we have said or how we have said it. We simply want to be heard-not just our words, but our heart as well. And we want others to respond to us like they really listened.
Listening to understand and empathize requires work and effort. A good way to demonstrate that we are listening is to restate what we believe we heard the speaker communicate. This allows the speaker to verify that our interpretation is accurate. If it's not, the speaker has the opportunity to communicate the message again until we get it and clarify any possible misunderstandings. For example, "When I said I did not like your idea, I did not mean I thought it would not work..." or "When I told you I was not ready for a commitment, I meant I need more time."
Listening also includes the ability to accurately restate what we perceive is the feeling associated with the message. We feel safe to share our feelings and needs with those who are accepting, validating, and care enough to listen to us. When we develop our ability to listen and communicate our understanding of what we have heard, we open the door to greater intimacy. We can become better listeners by first breaking down some common barriers to listening. We can listen five times faster than we can speak. That allows us quite a bit of extra time. Unfortunately, that time is often spent on something other than the person speaking to us and on what they are saying. Instead, we might be preoccupied with what we want to say to them. This creates a barrier that keeps us from listening attentively and empathically. We can't hear what someone is telling us when a barrier is in the way.
There are all sorts of barriers to good listening. For example, it can be difficult to listen when we are distracted or preoccupied. Our attention is not focused on the speaker because other things vie for our attention. So we might hear the speaker some of the time, but miss out on much of what they are trying to communicate. It can be difficult to listen attentively when we are tired or not feeling very alert. It might simply be bad timing. Defensive or negative attitudes can also block us from listening. Inner conflicts might keep us from devoting the necessary attention to actively listen. We might have preconceived notions about what the speaker is talking about. So instead of hearing their thoughts and feelings, we have already formulated our own opinions and attitudes. And we may become preoccupied with our own ideas rather than hear them out.
Breaking down barriers to active listening is a challenge that will never cease to exist. And that is why listening requires work and effort. It takes practice to put aside your own agenda and tune out distractions. And with practice it becomes easier. You will find that being a good listener opens up the channels to better communication. As you listen to understand, you will not only hear others' words, you will also hear their heart. Listen closely and what you hear may surprise you. There is so much you do not have to miss out on if you will only listen.
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