These conversations happen dozens of times a day. Generally, my son wants simple acknowledgment that he has spoken; he is not looking for praise, advice, or anything other than a reflection of what he has said. In listening to my husband and son this morning I considered how early in life we insist on being heard.
An older person in an intimate relationship doing the same thing might be called a nag, annoying, overwhelming, etc. They might be accused of requiring excessive praise. The listener might shoot back “I heard you!” or “quit nagging me, I got it” or the ever so sarcastic “Good for you! What you do you want? A medal?” The listener may also remain silent or change the subject. When accused of ignoring the speaker, the listener might then say “I heard what you said” without ever showing that the message was in fact heard.
We show people that we hear them through reflective listening or mirroring. It is so simple people forget to do it. My husband exercised reflective listening with my son by repeating what he said and changing pronouns. Toddlers often make their needs obvious; adults, however, get lost in their complicated brains and their needs get muddled in miscommunication. As we age, we forget to mirror others in conversation; we stop showing that we hear people and people stop showing that they hear us.
How often do you tell someone something and wonder if they had heard you? It is likely the person understood what you said, but did not show it. Have people ever insisted that you don’t listen even though you hear and understand everything they say? Again, when this happens, it is more likely that you do not verbalize what you hear. Generally, reflective listening will facilitate most interpersonal relationships. When practicing reflective listening, do not offer advice or praise or an alternative perspective. Simply mirror what the person has said.
For example, if someone says “I’m so hurt that I wasn’t invited to that guy’s birthday party. I hate him,” you mirror by saying, “you’re hurt you weren’t invited to his party. You hate him.” Once you say anything else, no matter the intention, you are not mirroring. If you want to say something else, wait until it is clear that the person feels heard. Here are some examples of responses you might want to give, but they would be less helpful than mirroring:
“He’s lame anyway. Let’s go do something cooler than that stupid party.” You may be trying to offer support or an alternative perspective with this statement. Usually, responses like this are often perceived as dismissing the person’s hurt feelings rather than being supportive.
“Hate’s a pretty strong word.” You’re right, hate is a strong word and chances are this person doesn’t actually hate the guy who failed to extend the invitation. When a person expresses hate, however, it is not the time to challenge the emotion or discuss your discomfort with the word. A person who expresses hate is in an emotional space, it can be much more helpful to reflect the emotions or mirror what has been said and wait to see how the person feels when the “hate” subsides. Chances are that person will realize they don’t actually hate the guy without any intervention on your part. If you do want to offer alternative viewpoints, the person will be most open to such suggestions when in a more rational space.
“Whatever. Let’s get dinner.” Again, this is likely said with the intention of giving the birthday guy the attention he deserves: none. At the same time, such a response can be understandably interpreted as dismissive or ignoring the person’s feelings. Furthermore, there is a very good chance the person will discuss their hurt feelings several times throughout dinner. You will probably start to think something along the lines of “What’s the big deal? This guy is stupid. Why do you care so much?” Odds are, however, that your hurt friend simply wants you to acknowledge their feelings.
“I wasn’t invited to a party once. Turns out everyone got food poisoning, so I’m glad I didn’t go.” Again, the intent here is probably to support your friend, commiserate, and identify an alternative perspective. When someone is in an emotional space, however, comments like this can seem like you are steering the conversation to be about you rather than the other person’s hurt feelings. Furthermore, a statement that directly or indirectly compares the hurt person’s reaction to one that is “healthier,” can imply that there is something wrong with his/her response as though you’re actually saying “it’s wrong to feel hurt, it’s better to just not care.” To simply not care when someone hurts your feelings can be so difficult.
Reflective listening will not alleviate every communication issue you have, but you may notice that if you practice it regularly, your interactions will improve tremendously. Remember, speaking comprises only have of communication skills; listening embodies the other half.