Listening is More than Hearing
With the entire family spending more time at home the ongoing chatter and background noise all day long can seem relentless. Some of it involves general daily life admin, some of it is negotiating space or internet time, and some is general white noise due to proximity. But, with all that noise are we are really listening to one another? Have we lost some meaningful conversations and engagements because we are just spending too much time together?
I spoke with Sarah Haas, a psychotherapist based in Singapore about how to reset our listening and focus on those closest to us.
What is active listening?
It’s a way of understanding another person from their perspective. Step into the other’s person’s shoes, give them your full attention and tune into non-verbal cues as well as the words they are saying.
It’s important to understand that hearing is not listening. Hearing is noise, sound waves. Listening is being able to take in information and do something with it.
When is a good time to have a conversation?
We’re all dealing with two huge barriers to listening: screens and external stimuli. Let’s be honest, everyone is multi-tasking—sending a message, looking at a document, cooking a meal, and trying to listen to a spouse or child. We do things on the go rather than dedicating the time to engage and actively listen.
Sarah suggests that you pick a good time during the day to focus on one another and really listen. At first you may need to make a plan and set a specific time to talk. It’s ok to ask permission. Say, “I need you to listen to me for a few minutes.” Especially now when our workday is bleeding into our home lives, it’s hard to know when it’s a good time to talk. And, if someone approaches you, it’s ok to say, “I can’t focus on you right this minute, can we set a time to talk later.” This signals that both the person and what they are saying is important.
Sarah loves a screen-free family dinner as a check in time. With everyone seated around the table, you can ask specific questions about their day.
Depending on the age of your kids, bedtime is also a good time to listen. Kids are tired, vulnerable and may be more apt to share feelings in this quieter, calmer time of the day. You’ll both find it easier to engage and focus.
Another good time is in the car where meaningful conversation can happen because you have a captive audience. But, Sarah cautions against using the confined space for nagging or nit-picking as the other person can feel attacked. Sometimes the car works well because eye contact can make people feel uncomfortable. If you’re sitting side-by-side or with a child in the back seat, sometimes that can be easier. You want both sides to feel comfortable enough to have an active conversation.
The bottom line is that you know your family the best and you know when the best time is to engage. Trust yourself.
How do you re-engage to make sure you’re actually listening?
It’s important to listen without prejudice. Pay attention to the person speaking and listen to their perspective. It’s about them and what they have going on.
Stop thinking about what you want to say next and avoid judging what they are saying. Instead, consider what they are trying to get out of the conversation and not your ulterior motives.
While it is difficult to leave your history out of a conversation, especially with children, it’s important to let them form their own experiences and opinions.
Try paraphrasing what the other person said rather than nodding or just saying, “uh-huh,” which Sarah calls quieting with little affirmations. When you summarise the other person they will feel heard, justified and know you are focusing and paying attention.
It’s also ok to ask questions to make sure you are on the same page. But, again, do this without judgement or prejudice. Make it clear you are clarifying so you can understand what they are saying.
She also advocates silence in a conversation. You can let something just sit for a bit. You don’t need to jump in and talk right away.
Finally, she reminds us, there doesn’t always have to be conversation in order for there to be a healthy relationship. Right now, it might be enough to stay away from the nagging, critique and criticism, that arise because we are in each other’s space more than usual.
Sarah is a licensed counsellor and psychotherapist at International Counselling & Psychology Centre in Singapore, Sarah specialises in supporting families, children, adolescents in young adults. In her free time she enjoys travel and exploring other cultures.