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Listening Skills

[Frederica Here and Now Podcast; October 1, 2009]


Frederica Mathewes-Green: I’m sitting at my kitchen table today with my friend Katherine Mowers, a member of my church, Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Baltimore. She wanted to interview me about listening skills, and I’m recording our conversation for my podcast as well.


Katherine Mowers: Here’s the first question: How can you do reflective listening in a manner that is more than just listening, but actively supporting the person?


FM-G: I do a lot of nodding. I smile a lot; I’m a chronic smiler, in any case. (People often say, “My you have a bright smile today!” and I think, “I do?”) So I signal with body language and facial expression, as well as tone of voice, that I’m interested in what they are saying.


If you have a lift in your voice, it sounds like you’re interested even if you aren’t, particularly; a lift in the voice conveys a quality of liveliness and alertness. All of these nonverbal measures give people the sense that you are reflecting back their presence, almost like with a mirror—a concave mirror—catching it in the bowl and sending back to them your receptiveness.


The key is to pay attention, to observe the other person and consciously take them in. I read an article once about the cues that reveal when someone is lying; in particular, it was about police trying to find a failsafe way to tell if someone’s lying, because that would make their job much easier. So scientists were studying the various involuntary signals that give people away when they lie. I learned that there are about fifty muscles in the face, and these can be combined in a nearly infinite number of ways. And there are some facial expressions that liars exhibit, by means of muscles that they can’t control consciously, that can give them away. They found that there were a few police who were able to recognize lies with great accuracy, and it turned out that they were observing these muscle groupings in the face, almost instinctively. They had learned to pay attention to the way a person’s face moved and could spot the tell-tale combinations.


This article termed these muscle combinations “microexpressions,” because they were often very fast, and would just flit across the person’s face and disappear. Of course, there are microexpressions for many other conditions than lying. What some police could do instinctively they were trying to train other police to do with practice, and you can definitely cultivate your ability to notice microexpressions.


Another instance would be to notice if there is discontinuity between what a person is saying and what their expression conveys. When my children were young I took them to a doctor who made a lot of jokes. But eventually it dawned on me that, for all the joking, he never smiled. I didn’t notice this at first because I was only registering the content, the joking. But I became aware that I felt sort of uneasy when we went to see him, I felt some stress. It was because of the disconnect between what he was saying and what his face honestly communicated. Perhaps someone had told him “It’s a good idea to joke around when treating kids,” but there wasn’t any joy with it. Many people would be like me and not catch that disconnect, because the surface content is distracting.


So you can learn to observe microexpressions, or to notice a disconnect between content and tone of voice or facial expression. Notice whether the person will make eye contact or not. Notice whether a smile is sincere or not. You know, anyone can force their mouth muscles to smile, but you can’t consciously control the muscles around the eyes. A true smile involves the eyes as well, but it’s something you can’t fake.


Since learning that I’ve noticed it often in photos of movie stars. They have to interact with strangers so often, and are obliged to be nice and friendly, but it must be exhausting; smiling with the whole face wouldn’t be sincere, and it would add years in terms of wrinkles. As a result, many of them exhibit false smiles where the mouth is curved but the eyes are flat. If you really look at them, the expression can be almost hostile, like a dog showing of teeth. But often what you see is just tiredness. I don’t blame them for doing this; I’m sure their lives are very stressful, and they’re obliged to produce a social smile to an exhausting extent. I don’t begrudge any strategy they use, but just wanted to use it as another example of a disconnect in the messages a facial expression can deliver.


Those are the some of the things that come to mind, when you want to be a good listener: observe their tone of voice, facial expression, note if there is discontinuity in their facial expressions, and any microexpressions that go fleeting by. All of that can be effective in reflecting. If I’m talking with somebody and sense that something else is going on beyond the surface content of the words, I’ll try to bring it out (that is, if I feel led to do so; I’m not always called to meddle). I’ll try to bring it out by echoing their tone of voice and leading it to a different place.


For example, if someone is talking about superficial things, nothing profound, but I’m picking up that they’re sad or worried, I’d try to match their tone of voice, speak at the same level, and then bring it down just a little bit, a little lower and slower. I’d try to create a pause in what I’m saying (you can’t make another person pause), and I’ll say, “You know, you just seem worried today.”


Sometimes techniques like this are used wrongly, aggressively, in attempting to dominate or expose someone. But if you do it with love and gentleness, and you sincerely care about that person, you can try to meet them where they are and gently bring it deeper. Don’t suddenly go all heavy on them. Take it down one step, and then another and another, as the conversation rolls on from there. Talk more slowly, allowing more space, more “umms” and “ahs”. It’s up to them if they want to follow your lead, of course, but some people will open up more than they expected to, if you start where they are and proceed to the underlying thing that is really going on.


Another thing you might do, and might find that you began doing this unconsciously, is to mirror the person’s expression, their gestures, their posture. It can happen naturally if you’re feeling empathy with someone. Say you’re standing facing someone as they talk. If that person is resting his weight on his left foot and putting his left hand on his hip, you might begin to rest your weight on your right foot and put your right hand on your hip—in terms of posture, a mirror image. If you’re sitting at a table and he’s resting his chin in his right hand, you might rest your chin in your left hand. As I said, people do this unconsciously if they want to signal sympathy. Mirroring helps people feel safer and they relax and open up. It greases the tracks for the conversation.


Of course, if you do this deliberately or too obviously it can looks like you’re just using a technique on them, and that blasts any sense of trust. But I mention it in case you notice it happening, and feeling like the right thing to do. It’s a way that can indicate that you’re right with the person you’re talking to, walking right alongside them.


People suffer so much from not being understood. Most people don’t get listened to as much as they need to. If you become a good listener you can be used for a lot of healing and clarifying.


That was a lot to say, for one question!


KM: That’s all very good. Related to that question, would you say it’s ever good to offer advice or suggestions, or would it depend on the relationship you have with the person, and the circumstances?


FM-G: I do offer suggestions. I can hardly help it. I don’t know if this is a flaw in the way I do things. But after I’ve listened for awhile and gotten a sense of what’s going on, if I see solution or a way out, I always tell them. That’s a place where I can begin to lose the connection, sure. The person may not be ready to listen to any solutions yet, and may still need to ventilate.


I think that some people, especially men, are more reluctant to hear suggestions from a woman. A man who is doing the listening, especially one in a position of authority, may be more effective in saying “What I think you ought to do is this,” “Have you tried that”. I sometimes find, particularly when I’m talking to a man, that they may react to my suggestion by rejecting it and trying to show the flaws in it. You just have to be okay with that. Maybe later on they’ll go ahead and implement it, but you may not get the gratification at the moment of seeing them recognize it. Sometimes people do accept a suggestion; sometimes they say something like, “Wow, I never thought of that, that would probably work.” But usually not immediately; they may even seem to ignore what you’re saying, gloss over it, and later on in the conversation come back to it.


Yes, I do give suggestions, and I find that, when I move from simply reflecting to offering a resolution, that’s where I begin to lose people. They’re usually not expecting to hear advice; they’re expecting to ventilate rather than hear recommendations.


Speaking of reflecting, I just thought of something else. As a child, I had a habit or game I’d play. Oddly enough I just read about it in a short story by George MacDonald; a little girl in his story did this too. When I was small thought everybody did this, but maybe they don’t. Anyway, as a way of amusing myself, if I was with somebody, I would try to feel physically what they were feeling. I would notice, for example, the way my friend’s foot was pressing up against the chair leg, and I would try to feel that same pressure at the same point on my foot. Or, as you stir your tea, the spoon must be getting hot; I’d try to replicate that sense of heat in my fingertips. It was a way to pass the time, but it is also a form of mirroring, and I think developed the habit in me.


Sometimes I still do this, and I find it can be helpful if I’m trying to get a sense of what a person is feeling. Say I’m having a conversation with somebody, and I feel like something else, something unspoken, is going on here, but I can’t put my finger on what it is. When I’m alone later on I’ll try to replicate the person’s facial expression, or their gestures and posture. I’ll be thinking, “Now the mouth was like that, and the shoulders were like this”—and when I get it right, I can get a flash of insight about what they were feeling. Often imitating the expression and stance is all it takes, and I can grasp all at once what was going on. I might think, “So that’s what it was—that was fear,” or frustration, or whatever. The body can tell you things that the brain can’t figure out all by itself.


Being able to replicate the stance or expression can give me a flash of insight, but of course it doesn’t answer all the questions. I may still end up wondering, “But why would she be feeling that?” I can at least identify what it feels like, though.


KM: I know for myself that I’ll hide some things that are going on, but outwardly, verbally, I’m saying that everything is okay. Other people do that too. I never thought of trying to replicate what their facial expression was. Our faces can express things that are deep inside, without our intending to.


FM-G: Some expressions are controlled, and some are uncontrolled. Sometimes people try to hide something, and you can tell that they’re trying to hide something. If you can replicate the face, the shoulders, the stance, you might get insight.


You know, you can learn about yourself that way too. I recently read an essay by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (1914-2003), who wrote great books about prayer, and he said that, to a monastic, the body is like a Geiger counter. You can understand what is going on in the state of your soul by observing your body’s reactions. You don’t have to plumb your psyche all the time, because the body can tell you what’s going on inside your heart, soul, and understanding.  No doubt it takes many years of self-observation to be able to do that, though.


KM: What do you do when a person is apparently stuck, and saying the same thing over and over? I’ve heard that’s a sign that they don’t feel listened to. But sometimes I find that I’m listening and reflecting what they’re saying, but they still keep saying the same thing and don’t move past it.


FM-G: Yes, a lot of people will go on repeating themselves if they think they haven’t been heard. Elderly people often complain that they have good advice to give and nobody listens to them; those they want to listen may not want to hear it, and shut it out. I find it’s helpful to verbalize to an advice-giving person very clearly and precisely what they’re trying to say. If Granpa keeps saying “The baby ought to wear a hat,” you can say, “You think the baby should be wearing a hat. Why do you think that? Do you think it’s cold?” and so on. Exhaust the topic. Get it all out of their system.


I learned another way past repetitive blocks when I was assisting with the Common Ground Network, trying to help pro-choice and pro-life people together to dialogue. Instead of getting people to talk about their opinions, we asked them to talk about their experiences. We’d sit in a circle, and the pro-life person might go first and say, “This is what happened to me, this is the experience I had that brought me to my position,” rather than “This is what I think about right and wrong, and this is why.” Then the person on the other side would reflect it back, saying, “You had this experience and you drew these conclusions.” The idea was for them to mirror it back in a way that was respectful, so that the pro-life person would say, “Yes, that is accurate; you understood me.” It was very liberating to be understood.


We didn’t try to agree in this group, by the way. We started out with the assumption that we were not going to come to agreement, and trying to persuade each other was against the ground rules. We were just trying to clear up misunderstandings and false assumptions. I used to say we were trying to get beyond misunderstanding to sincere disagreement. You can understand someone thoroughly without agreeing with them.


So when the conversation seems stuck, verbalizing back respectfully in language the speaker would recognize as accurate can be very helpful. Something I do, to reinforce that I caught what they said, is that if a particular word seems important to the speaker, when I reflect back I’ll pick up and use the same word. Sometimes they’ll say “Yes!” and use the word again, repeating it for emphasis. You know then that you have communicated, and they know they’ve been heard.


Obviously, it’s important with reflecting or mirroring that it be respectful, and not contentious or ridiculing, even if you disagree. If Granpa says that baby ought to have a hat, spend five minutes talking it to death; they won’t be able to say they haven’t been heard! Listening doesn’t commit you to agreeing. You can listen to someone’s advice without taking their advice and implementing it.


Another possible factor, when someone seems “stuck,” is that the thing they need to get out is something they themselves don’t recognize yet. As much as you say “Uh huh” and “Yes,” they just keep going in circles. When that happens, I think there could be something stuck inside that they can’t yet enunciate it entirely. Perhaps it’s like a circular train track, a series of four or five points in their mind that just loop together, round and round. They may be feeling ambivalent about something, and don’t see a clear path to choose one course or the other. In such a case, you may not be able to do much to help them, since it is inner work that they alone can do. If you note that they seem to be stuck you could back off and try to look at another layer, saying something like, “You must be feeling so frustrated,” or “How distressing.” Then they can talk about the frustration, which perhaps is something they can verbalize fully, and it gives them some momentum.


Here’s another tip, one I learned in Parent Effectiveness Training long ago in the 1970’s. It was to make statements in a conversation, rather than ask questions. That is, to say, “That sounds frustrating,” rather than ask, “Do you feel frustrated?”


Though it seems like asking questions is the obvious way to get a person to open up, a question disrupts the flow. It has the effect of making the person step out of the stream of his thoughts and instead turn and examine himself. They then get separated from their feeling, and stand outside it, observing. It’s better if they can go on embodying those thoughts and feelings. If you slide your observation into the stream of the conversation as a statement, they don’t have to externalize and lose their train of thought.


For example, if you ask a guy, “Do you feel frightened about that?” of course they’ll say “No!” Well, you just ended the conversation! But if you say, “If that was me, I would have been so scared right then,” a lot of times they’ll go “Yeah!” and keep on rolling. It’s like jiu-jitsu; you use the momentum in the conversation to take it to the next place. Asking someone a question makes them stop and try to look at themselves objectively; if they don’t like what they see they may begin resisting it, and the conversation becomes less honest.


Saying simple things like “Uh-huh,” and “Yes” are good because they don’t interject anything of content into the conversation, but just help the river go on flowing. But sometimes you need to verbalize more fully. If you’re on the receiving end of an endless stream of “Uh-huh” and “Yes,” you might start to feel self-conscious and think that you’re boring the listener, since it seems you’re not saying anything they find worth talking about. Worse, you might start to suspect that this person is just using some listening technique on you, and doesn’t really care at all.


So occasionally make specific statements to identify what you’re hearing. Here’s something good to know: it doesn’t matter if you guess wrong. If you say, “You must have been frustrated” and they respond, “No, I wouldn’t say frustrated, it was more like…”, they’ll fill in the blank and the conversation becomes more insightful. Guessing wrong can help the person identify more exactly what they’re feeling, and that makes the conversation more helpful to them.


K: That’s very helpful. In learning about listening I’d been on a track of emphasizing the questions, and learning to identify the right questions. But this makes sense. A question takes a person out of themselves to analyze themselves, but a statement keeps them in the flow, directing the conversation, and able to continue being with whatever that is that they’re expressing.


F: And asking a question could mean that you are taking over the conversation and deciding what you’ll talk about next; with statements, they’re still leading the way, but you can help them get to the next point by showing that you’re with them.


K: Now I have a question regarding a group. What has been your experience in helping a group try to solve a problem?


F: It’s hard to answer globally, because the reason that brought the group together will make a difference in their problem-solving process—whether there are high emotions about the outcome, for example.


I can’t think of a time that I’ve tried to help a group solve a problem recently, so that’s not something I’m particularly experienced at. But one of the obvious dangers is if one member of the group is overconfident and overly certain of what should happen. Such a person might—intentionally or not—steamroll other people who also have good ideas. It might be a person who has a dominating personality to start with, whereas others in the group are more flexible, or maybe less invested in the outcome. Group dynamics can be so fluid and volatile; just the appearance of a person with a strong opinion can be enough to make other members of the group think, “Well, our work is done. I’ll just agree with her and everything will be fine.”


So that would be one task for a person who is trying to facilitate group decision-making: to prevent any one group member from usurping leadership and imposing his or her decision. Help to keep the topic open and postpone arriving at a decision until the group feels the right solution has been found.


That’s advice that would pertain to any group, but how specifically to help them arrive at a decision is something I haven’t had much experience with. A whiteboard or chalkboard would be helpful, I think, to keep track of different recommendations and ideas. Noting the suggestion of a soft-spoken person and writing it down gives it as much weight as the opinion of a steamroller. When the list of solutions is written down for all to read and reread, everyone in the group can keep sifting them, and nothing will be forgotten because it was expressed less than forcefully. 


It is important to stay aware of the group members who aren’t talking, and to keep inviting them to put forth their ideas. I’m assuming that, as a facilitator of the group, you’re not yourself invested in any particular solution, or commissioned to bring about a particular point of view. You can ask if anyone sees drawbacks or potential problems in what a strong personality has recommended. Draw attention to the fact that there could be other solutions, and invite members to suggest them. Maintain an atmosphere where all ideas can come forth.


K: We’ve found that, in an individual situation, if you have an ongoing relationship with a person you can’t get everything out in one session; it might take weeks or months. That’s just the nature of this process of helping people work through their ideas, identifying what might be blocking them, or new ideas that are exciting to them, and being connected to what interests them.


F: That’s true. One of my flaws is that I’m impatient. When I perceive that there’s a problem, I want to get the problem solved. If the person you’re listening to isn’t ready to go there yet, if they still need to ventilate, you can’t rush them. That can be a hard thing for me, allowing them the time they need. It’s like trying to rush a hardboiled egg; you can’t do it, you just have to wait, even though you may know exactly what (in your opinion) that hardboiled egg ought to look like.


And I think it’s hard to do any of these things effectively if you don’t, to some extent, love the other person. Being able to be patient with them is the fruit of love. It’s more than just a technique. You have to see the complexity and beauty of another human being, and respect that, without trying to force it in one area or another. It’s very hard to me to do. If it is going to take month after month for them to work towards a solution, you need to have as your goal not fixing the problem, but enabling the process that emerges with time, like enabling a rose to bloom. You can’t rush that; you have to let it do that on its own schedule.


I once heard somebody say that no one hears anything except what comes out of their own mouth. So you should keep in mind the need to help someone come to the point that the solution comes rising up out of their own heart and mind. Even if it’s something that you could have told them at the first session, help them get to that point where they can enunciate it themselves. Then the truth of that outcome will be apparent to them because it will have grown organically, out of their own experience and their own history. Patience is hard, but I do think that’s what’s called for.


You and I are Christians, and we are helped in these things because it is foregrounded in our faith that we are supposed to love others, to love everyone, to be humble and ready to be their servants. It’s a theme we keep encountering, because of our environment in the Christian faith. I don’t know whether people of other religions or none have similar sources to derive that same conviction. It’s probably easier for us, because we hear it reinforced in our daily readings, worship, and the conversations we have with other Christians. We get that message over and over again, because it’s a part of our faith that becomes almost automatic, instinctive. It’s hard for me to picture how I could practice that love if I didn’t have a community, both now and reaching back in time, providing that reinforcement. Still, the truth of it may just be obvious, even to people of no religion, and they can grasp that the only way people can solve their problems is from the inside, voluntarily. Your role is to be a midwife, and help them get to the point that they can bring forth the solution to their own problems.


It’s true that, in some cases, there is a persistent impediment, and the person has gotten stuck and apparently immobilized. Perhaps they’re afraid of something; perhaps they’ve wrestled with a similar situation before and were hurt in the process. In some cases, quietly waiting wouldn’t be enough. There are times you would need to be more active in helping them dig a little deeper into whatever their block or resistance is, and bring it to the surface.


We both know what it is like to have a spiritual father guiding your prayer life and advising you on decisions. As you know, sometimes a single sentence will break some ancient bonds. You’ll suddenly see, “Oh—I never needed to worry about that.” Sometimes a false idea—in our Orthodox faith, a logismos—is controlling and dictating your actions, but you’re not able to see it; an insightful elder or spiritual father may be able to expose it to the light, and break its power with a single statement.


I’ve been emphasizing that we shouldn’t take people by the elbow and steer them, that we should let them discover their own solutions, but sometimes it takes another person to break through a tangle of confusion. Sometimes a person can’t break through on their own, because their mind is burdened by erroneous controlling thoughts. You don’t always have to be passive and noncommittal. There are times you can step forward and say, “I’m going to tell you honestly what it looks like to me.” That might be the right thing to do at the right time.


Another thing I wanted to mention is a mistake many people make when they’re trying to be a good listener, and that is to usurp the conversation by telling your own story. Say someone’s mother is ill and they’re very worried about it. You might be tempted to think that the best way to show you sympathize would be to say, “Oh, my mother was sick, too, and how I felt was this.”


Don’t do that, because in fact it has the opposite effect; instead of listening, you’ve dragged the spotlight back to over to yourself. You’re asking this person to stop talking about his burden and stop following the track of his own thoughts, and instead pretend to be interested in yours. This can initially sound like the most sympathetic thing to do, but it backfires.


Keep in mind that, no matter what happened to you, it can’t be exactly what’s happening to that person. They are coming to their experience with a different history and a different personality, with different resources to draw on, and at a different place in their growth in Christ. Their situation truly is unique. Let people be unique, especially if they are suffering or sad. Let them, for the space of this conversation, be the only person in the world who knows what their own circumstance is like.


Sometimes it’s true that there is factual information you can pass on, which can be helpful. If someone’s worried about a medical procedure you went through the same thing, you can say, “Oh, I did that and it really didn’t hurt,” or “I looked up those statistics and it turns out that it’s not dangerous.” You may have facts you can give the person that will relieve worry or answer questions, and if so that’s fine. But don’t try to tell them you know exactly what their feelings are like, because you felt the same. It just puts a brick wall in the conversation. It sure can seem like that would be the obvious thing to do, but it just backfires.


Everyone is so unique, and everyone’s concern at a certain time is going to be different from their previous and future concerns. It takes a lot of sensitivity to be a good listener, and a willingness to get out of the way. Again, it helps us in this that we are Christians, and can be praying in our hearts the whole time, asking the Lord to show us what we should do and what we should say.


In the end, the most important thing is to love the person that you’re talking to. God is love, and the presence of God is love. If you feel bored by this person, or feel like they’re wasting your time, they’ll pick up on that. So try to take a deep breath and tell yourself, “I’m going to be fully present to this person and listen to them, and reflect back to them the peace of God and the love of God, no matter what they need to say, no matter how long it takes them to say it.” Dedicate a space of time to them and be fully there for that duration. Sometimes there are practical limits to how much time you can give, of course, but as far as possible allow people to have the space and time that they need.


This is not a technique you can learn; it’s something you can do only out of the love of your heart, out of God’s love in your heart, the love God has for that person. So love them with the love that God has for them, and give them the listening kindness they deserve as they struggle with their problem. It’s very freeing, very liberating, to recognize that it’s not up to you to come up with the correct thoughts, opinions, and advice. All you have to do is get out of the way, and allow the Lord to be present working through you, loving way the other person in the way he knows best.


KM: That was the last of my questions. Thank you!

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