“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” ~Ralph Nichols
Did you know that one in ten U.S adults suffer from depression? (This is according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.) How do I know? I was one of them. Starting in 2008, I suffered from depression for more than a year.
Many factors contributed to my depression—of course loneliness and lack of social support were the obvious factors—but the major contributor was that I didn’t feel understood. It was a transition year for me, as I had left my corporate job to find more meaningful work that was aligned with my core values.
With the time off, I started feeling and sensing how much past pain and resentments I had stored inside my heart. It was like the quieter I got, the more I heard how much of what was inside me. I felt a huge void, as if I was a failure in more than one aspect of my life.
During my depression, I felt like my family members and friends did not understand me and lacked the time, patience, or skills to listen effectively. I felt suffocated, isolated, and invisible.
The universe has a weird way of working things out in life; things appear or show up for a reason. What appeared for me was a powerful listener. Though this person was a complete stranger to me, I felt connected from the very first day.
When they listened so patiently and intently to my words and feelings—both expressed and unexpressed—it felt so incredible that I didn’t want to stop sharing. I emptied my entire heart, all my fears, disappointments, and pain. I released all of it.
It was a pure, non-judgmental, patient, and empathetic space where I got to express and feel understood and validated. I didn’t get any solutions, advice, or answers. Instead I got thought provoking questions, like “What does your soul really want?” “What makes you happy?” “What are you grateful for?” and “How can you forgive?”
It was this powerful listening that provided immeasurable healing. It was the first time in my life I actually felt like I had been heard, really understood—like what I had to say made sense. I felt important and visible again.
Like most depressed people, I lacked motivation and self-worth. Feeling understood is the most basic of human needs; during a time of depression it almost feels as critical as the need for air.
Being understood immediately shifted my perspective: from feeling invisible to feeling visible, from feeling down to feeling uplifted, from feeling contracted to feeling expanded, from feeling hopeless to hopeful.
It made me rise again and take care of my basic needs. Slowly but surely, I was able to walk out of the depression with the help of powerful listening, which has changed my life forever.
Have you ever been in a situation when you felt like your words weren’t being acknowledged? Like you were expressing yourself over and over again, yet you were being misunderstood? Like you were fighting so hard to get your point across, but it only got worse?
“Effective listeners remember that ‘words have no meaning—people have meaning.’ The assignment of meaning to a term is an internal process; meaning comes from inside us. And although our experiences, knowledge and attitudes differ, we often misinterpret each other’s messages while under the illusion that a common understanding has been achieved.” ~Larry Barker
When someone listens to you well, it makes you feel accepted, understood, important, valued and validated. It gives you a voice to help you find yourself again. It reminds you that you are not invisible or alone.
Although we hear with our ears, many of us don’t necessarily listen to what is being said. We don’t get the chance to listen when we are too quickly reacting, judging, providing solutions, and disagreeing, rather than being a good sounding board.
We also don’t get to see a lot of examples of real listening because it is so rare.
So what does it take to be a good listener?
It starts by realizing how important and powerful this practice can be. Also, realize that it’s all about the other person. If you can put aside your own agenda, you’ll be able to focus on really hearing.
That means 80% of the time you listen patiently without interrupting, and the remaining 20% you reflect what you heard and ask questions to get more information about the situation.
When you are an active or mindful listener, you are fully present, not thinking about the past or the future. With full concentration, you can recognize that, as Bryan Bell wrote, “It is frequently not what the facts are, but what people think the facts are, which is truly important. There is benefit in learning what someone else’s concept of the reality of the situation is.”
Check in with yourself: Are you aware of your focus level? How long can you concentrate without your thoughts drifting off?
Good listeners not only concentrate on the words, they also look for nonverbal communication like pitch, tone, and rhythm. Look for the hidden feelings behind the words, and find what might inspire, excite, and free them up.
Be curious and ask questions to get more information, “How do you feel about this? How would you resolve this?” Paraphrase what you hear to confirm you understand.
“Many a man would rather you heard his story than granted his request.” Phillip Stanhope
The best listening skill is to be non-judgmental. When you judge someone when they’re talking, the other person often shuts down. Non-judgmental listening gives the other person a sense of freedom and acceptance.
Listening benefits the listener as well. It helps build trust, avoid misunderstanding, and above all it’s a true gift which you can share to uplift people.
Take the time to really listen today, and see how it changes other people’s lives—and yours.
Photo by mikebaird