You're Not Listening To Me!!!

As a Crisis Response Counsellor for Kids Help Phone Text Line, I often read texts that said, “no one listens to me” or “you’re the first person who’s ever really listened to me.” Was that true? Maybe. But maybe it’s also true that the people in their life think they are listening but aren’t. Being an engaged, active listener is a critical skill for any parent, guardian or caregiver to develop. 


Jackie Stevenson and Ellen Van Oosten in Listening Beyond What You Hear: The Practice of Engaged Listening explain that “engaged listening is hearing between words and beyond what is spoken, focusing on listening to what the speaker holds relevant, essential and most important.”


My time as a Crisis Response Counsellor and as the Child Safety Coordinator here at Rift Valley Academy has taught me that listening is the key to really helping people feel supported. However, too often we think we are listening – but are we really? 


The truth is that not all listening is created equally. In today’s digital world there are so many distractions. You may think you’re listening but what the speaker sees is you checking out the score on the TV, catching a quick glance at your phone which has just dinged, finishing up that email you were working on or reading a text message on your smart watch. The person speaking feels slighted and thinks you don’t really care. And even if you don’t have technology distracting you – if you’re listening with only the intention of responding or defending yourself, are you really listening to hear? Being an engaged listener requires intentionality and practice along with the skills to be engaged in the process of listening.


As Malinda Carlson, M.S.O.D Life Coach, mother and blogger shares, “Active listening is a way of fully hearing what the other person is saying. Not just assuming we know what they’re going to say after hearing the first two words and then spending the rest of the time they are talking preparing a perfect response. Instead, active listening focuses on dropping assumptions and working to understand the feelings, motivations, and views of the other person.”

So, what are some ways that we can be active, engaged listeners? My Kids Help Phone Crisis Response Training called them Good Contact Techniques – I call them The Keys To Being A Good Listener. Here are the top 7:


1. Reflection and paraphrasing consists of re-wording statements to demonstrate that you understand the issue and to show that you’re listening. The key here is not to parrot and repeat word for word but to use clarifying questions and to process what the individual is saying and reflect the essence of it back to them. For example, “It sounds like you’re saying you’re feeling frustrated by your school work right now” OR “So you were already feeling isolated and today’s incident added fuel to the fire to make you feel more lonely.”


2. Strong feeling words help people feel heard and understand by finding the appropriate vocabulary to capture the uniqueness of what they are going 

through. Utilizing strong feeling words looks like adding one degree of strength to whatever feeling the individual has identified. This shows that you understand and are listening. So, for example if the individual says that they are sad that their dog died and you reply, “it’s understandable to be devastated by the loss of your precious dog – I can tell he was one of your best friends,” you are identifying with the individual and demonstrating you get it. 


3. Validation is critical to any healthy conversation as it recognizes, normalizes and accepts what the person is saying. Basically, you are validating a person and letting them know that their feelings are normal and natural and there’s nothing wrong about feeling that way. For example: “It’s normal to feel frustrated when you don’t feel heard by your teachers” or “From what you’re saying, it’s understandable you don’t feel comfortable opening up to your friends.” Consider using the words reasonable, normal, makes sense, understandable, etc.


4.Tentafiers are a way to preface the labeling of a feeling to make it tentative. Basically tentafiers are a way for the listener to clarify how the person is feeling while still helping them feel in control by avoiding making assumptions. Examples of tentafiers would be “it seems like you’re feeling…” or “I wonder if you’re feeling…”


5. Open-ended questions are probably one of the most well-known ways to be an active listener and to engage in in-depth conversations with others. Open-ended questions can’t be answered with a simple yes or no but rather allow you and the person to explore in more detail. Examples would include, “can you tell me more about the frustrating thoughts you’ve been having?” or “Why do you think you’ve been feeling more anxious lately?” CAUTION: Avoid asking too many questions in a row because it can start to feel more like an interrogation or an interview instead of supportive and active listening. 


6. Strength IDs are a way that you can show the individual they have inherent positive qualities. Strength IDs are empowering and especially helpful to people in crisis as it reminds them they have internal strength to fight through their struggles. For example, using words such as brave, smart, proud, resilient, perseverant, etc. The key however is to always tie the Strength ID you are identifying to a visible action – as in, how or where do you see this in their life. For example, “It was brave of you to reach out for support, I’m impressed with your perseverance for dealing with this so long” or “I can tell how much you care about your family – they are lucky to have someone so loving in their lives.”


7. Empathetic Response Formula is one of the most effective communication skills you can utilize if you can get it right. The important thing to remember is that empathy and sympathy are not the same things. Empathy occurs when you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and attempt to see the world as they see it; while sympathy is feeling pity or sorrow for someone else. Empathy is the goal as it leads to collaborative problem solving and support instead of sympathy which often results in simply advice giving and pity. So how exactly do you utilize the empathetic response formula? You utilize a tentafier + a strong feeling word + the source of the feeling. Remember a tentifier is the preface (eg. “it seems like…,” “I wonder if…,” or “what I am hearing is…”); a strong feeling adds one degree stronger language (eg. scared becomes terrified, worried becomes anxious, stressed becomes overwhelmed); and the source of the feeling identifies where this is all stemming from (eg. “…because….,” “…after learning…,” or “…now that…”). Here’s an example of the formula in action, “It sounds like (tentafier) you are feeling devastated (strong feeling word) that your boyfriend broke up with you after he found out you cheated on him (source of the feeling).”


Look, we’re not going to get it right all the time. The ding on our smart phone will distract us or our personal desire to give advice or defend ourselves will rise to the top. And yes, we may at times be criticized for not listening or not fully understanding – especially if we work with teenagers. But the truth is, learning to listen is a journey – a journey all of us can benefit from traveling. For if we can become active, engaged listeners we will hear more, support more, encourage more, and even love more…which I for one think is worth the trip.

*Previously published in PROTECT publication issue 7.

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