“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” ~Stephen R. Covey
This is a post about listening.
I know it’s really unsexy. It’s a topic that’s like the sun; nobody looks directly at it. But you want to create deep and lasting connections with others, and real changes for your loved ones, right?
Right. Stick with me.
Think about your typical day. How often do you listen in a conversation with others without being fully present?
Go on, be honest.
You find that you float in and out of awareness. Certain aspects grab your attention, and then you key in. Other times you drift off and start mulling on what you’ll be having for lunch in an hours’ time.
At times you only catch the intonation at the end of the sentence, snap to the present moment, and suddenly panic-notice the other’s face. Okay. Her eyebrows suggest shock, and she’s looking at me expectantly, so this is a good bet: “Oh my! No way did that happen!” and then you shrink back and cross your fingers that it was the right response.
This is how we are. It’s the easy stuff, but we’re already on the back foot.
How about when someone you care for is going through something really difficult? As in, the kinds of life-changing dilemmas that keep them up at night—affairs, stormy or failed relationships, career changes, betrayal, death, those inexplicable inner demons that manifest into all their life choices.
When it comes to these kinds of important and deep-diving discussions, you may listen more intently, but maybe you have already made the decision about which course the conversation will take before it has had a chance to open out in front of you.
You find yourself formulating the end of the other’s thought before they have even completed it themselves, so halfway through their sentence, your answer is ready to ship: “You don’t want to do that,” you say, perhaps interrupting, “I tried it for months last year. It doesn’t work,” shaking your head in disapproval.
Or, “What are you waiting for? Call him back! He’s obviously interested!” And so on and so on.
It’s understandable. We navigate the world based on our learned experiences and personalized schema of how the world works.
We’ve made it this far; something must be working. So we are attentive for those things that fit in with our views and subconsciously dismissive of those things that do not—and we advise those we care about accordingly.
We do deeply want our loved ones to feel better, but we also want to justify the validity of our own experiences and our own decisions in life. We end up corralling, convincing with logic, until perhaps, finally, they reluctantly concede and we get that satisfying but short-lived dopamine hit from them: “I see your point.” Glorious!
Then why is it that we walk away feeling an emptiness in our gut? Did that conversation have any lasting impact at all?
In doing this, we may have the best intentions to help, but we’ve missed the subtleties.
We’ve leapt for the obvious answer but failed to notice it was a red herring, a distraction from what is really going on beneath the surface, or really just a mirror of what we had hoped to hear.
We’ve overlooked the cry for help that lay in the mundanities of speech, in that word that repeats, in that quick diversion from the sore spot, the dismissal of boredom that is actually, in the end, hitting on the truth.
There is a better way to approach conversations, particularly emotional ones, that is unlike this traditional way of interacting.
It will test your patience, your listening skills, and your ability to put yourself and your biases aside and care enough to pay real attention. It touches that part of us that understands:
“I don’t have the answers for you, my love, you’re going to have to venture within and find it yourself.”
It is a process of questioning called “guided discovery.”
Guided discovery has no set start, and the end is unclear. There is no direction and no specific outcome sought. It’s a process that allows the answers to lie hidden in the questions, where they can then slowly unfold by virtue of both people being fully present in the conversation.
Three years ago I entered therapy due to my extreme level of skittishness when it came to romantic relationships. On one hand I craved relationships and intimacy, but on the other hand it would fill me with a disproportionate level of terror.
I originally hoped my therapist would bestow me with a formula for changing my outlook and behavior and erase all my demons. (Not much to ask!) Instead, she grounded our discussion and connection in guided discovery. Over time I found a means to create my own personalized tools so that I could move forward in my own best and personal way.
You can engage this process anywhere, at any time, but it’s particularly effective in one-to-one conversations where there is a particular problem at hand, even if the other is unable to articulate or pinpoint their issue.
A particular tone will exude from a conversation that is grounded in guided discovery. You create it, and you will feel its qualities weave gently through the conversation:
- A full and loving presence in the conversation
- A listening ear that has a deep level of empathy
- The development of a trusting relationship and secure environment, which facilitates personal strength and courage to find a way through the problem
With this tone held throughout, here’s how the structure of guided discovery works:
1. Ask questions to bring into awareness information that is known and concrete.
Start your questions based on factual information, or observed and clarified from facial expressions, the tone of voice, and body tension. For example, “You sound disappointed. Are you disappointed?” This is to ensure you make it known that you are concerned and you care.
Step into their shoes. Listen for reactions. Notice words or phrases that repeat. Seek clarity and unpackage the thought. “I notice you keep saying how ridiculous you are to think this way. I wonder, has something led you to believe this way of thinking is ridiculous?”
You do not need to lead, but you may need to help the other explore a thought in more depth. Be open to the unexpected, even if you anticipate a specific answer.
You should be regularly surprised if you are truly being open and allowing the other to explore their own thoughts.
Sometimes it feels awkward to repeat back what you’ve just heard, but it shows the other that you are deeply hearing and understanding them. It also gives you a chance to make sure you’re both in agreement as to the progress and content of the interaction, and to see the conversation as a whole.
“You think being in a relationship will make you happier, but you are equally terrified to turn around one day and find yourself trapped in a loveless relationship you cannot escape. Have I heard you correctly?”
Finally, you need to synthesize all the information you’ve uncovered into a question or (series of questions) that allows them use the insights they’ve gained to find meaning in the original problem.
For example, my synthesis in therapy went more or less like this:
Therapist: “What would you do differently in your relationships if you felt less disappointed in yourself and you believed in the importance of love?”
Me: I’d probably be more courageous on dates and relationships, and not let the fear of being less than perfect stop me from being who I am.
Therapist: Are these things you could do now?
Me: I guess I could, even though it’s quite scary. I worry about being rejected. But yes, I suppose I could do it.
Therapist: Do you think it might make you feel good, to try to be yourself?
Me: It would certainly be less stressful and tiring than all this being on edge and running away. I don’t know if it would work, though.
Therapist: How could you find out?
Me: I suppose I could try to be fully myself on the next date. It won’t kill me, even though I panic! I might even learn something new, relax, maybe even enjoy myself!
Not knowing the answer herself, my therapist allowed me to tie my answers and discoveries together in a meaningful way.
The guided discovery process brought my coping mechanisms into plain view. It also provided me with an opportunity to test my beliefs and use my insights to think creatively about moving beyond my skittish behavior into a place of calm and love.
Four months ago my partner Mike got down on one knee and proposed to me on Primrose Hill in London, the place of our first date.
I was scared at first, but then time slowed down. I could feel the qualities of the guided discovery connection I had made, and the deep wounds I had uncovered and began to heal in the process. It gave me the courage I needed in the moment to say yes and step forward into his arms.
Slowly but surely, guided discovery enabled me to turn around my whole outlook on romantic love. Because I have experienced the effectiveness of this technique first-hand, I use it with others as much as I can, and there are multiple times in the week where opportunities present themselves.
Each time, it creates an inner sense of empathy, compassion, patience, and love that exudes not only outward to those I am conversing with, but inward.
It re-enforces the lessons I’ve learned and helps me appreciate the magnitude of the hurdles I’ve overcome and continue to contend with in life. In this way, guided discovery helps you connect and facilitate change for others, but you might also learn a thing or two about yourself on the journey.
As much as you wish to compel deep and lasting change upon our loved ones, it cannot be forced. Guided discovery allows the other’s story to be vocalized and heard from all the most important and relevant angles, and provides an opportunity for them to think creatively about different approaches to their problems.
Through this gentle process, change will then happen in its own time, facilitated through connection, exploration, trust, and openness to the unexpected.