Learning to Really Listen Requires the Ability to Pay Attention to All Opinions

Tobi Russell LPC, LLP, CAADC, CCS-M

This is not an article about taking sides, about who is right and who is wrong. Rather this is an article about listening to one another and some of what I have experienced in my counseling office since the election.

In my eighteen years of being a counselor, I have never had clients come into their sessions wanting to talk about their feelings about an election. I had individuals verbalizing fear, anxiety and sadness. I had clients diagnosed with eating disorders that were unable to eat. I had family members where sibling children were arguing with parents. One family member even reported that their own parent refused to speak to them because they voted for a different person than their parent did.

Obviously as a counselor, my job is to listen to people. But I don’t think that people need to be counselors to learn how to listen. Everyone needs to know how to listen. Hearing is different than listening. Hearing is perceiving sound by the ear. Listening on the other hand is something that you consciously choose to do. Listening has the goal of learning something new. Listening does not mean that you agree, but it does require that you respect a different perspective.

There are some important steps to engage in effective, active listening. The first step is to pay attention. Things like maintaining eye contact, putting aside distracting thoughts, and noticing the speaker’s body language are all part of paying attention. It is also important that we are not mentally preparing our “defense” in our head while someone is speaking. If we are thinking about what we want to say next, we are not listening to what the person is saying.

When it is time to respond, it is important to reflect what you think you have heard them say. For example, what I’m hearing is….or it sounds like you are saying…..As difficult as it may be, allow the person speaking to finish each point before asking questions and resist interrupting.

Active listening is a model for respect and understanding. It adds nothing to the conversation when you attack another person verbally, name-call, use passive-aggressive communication or bully them into agreeing with you. The 200 plus hate crimes that have been reported since last week is an example of individuals not listening to one another, but rather taking one characteristic and choosing to make that a reason for attacking that person. These behaviors are not limited to adults. Schools are seeing these behaviors as well. As adults, we have a responsibility to model appropriate ways to disagree.

Social media has made it even easier for us as a society to say demeaning comments to another person because we believe we have the cover of our computer screens. Somehow that makes the person on the other end of the screen not a “real” person. But they are real people. People with thoughts, feelings, goals, and dreams.

From a mental health perspective, it is important for all of us to practice the skill of listening. We all want to be listened to because it provides us a sense of belonging, which is a basic human need. November 13th was World Kindness Day, a day that encourages individuals to overlook boundaries, race and religion. I challenge all of us to celebrate this every single day. Our happiness and survival depends on it.

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