I like people (most of the time). I like trying to help people (again, most of the time).
I used to think the best way to help people with a problem was to tell them how to solve the problem.
Brilliant! After all, I’m the world’s expert on solving problems. OK, not really.
But seriously, I do want to help. When my family, friends, co-workers, etc. come to me with a problem, I want to support them as best I can. But here’s the rub. I rarely have the wisdom, insight, or in many cases, the backstory to know what advice to give. When I tried, I kept running into the same problem. I found that when I gave advice, I was heading for one of three outcomes:
1) The person takes my advice and it goes well. They come back to me the next time a problem arises for more of my “stellar” counsel. They don’t learn how to problem solve for themselves and are rolling the dice by having me advise them. And this can quickly become a strained relationship based on the outcomes of my counsel.
2) The person takes my advice and it goes poorly. Guess who gets the blame on this one? Spoiler alert—it ain’t them. Now I’ve got myself in some serious soup trying to help them problem solve a potentially bigger issue caused by my first “gem” of a counsel. This can go any number of unpleasant ways. Primarily, they’re frustrated with me and our relationship takes a hit.
3) The person asks for my advice, I give it, and they don’t act on it. Can you say, “resentment?” I mean, I just spent goodness knows how long listening to their problem, they ask me what to do, I drop it like Sigmund Freud, and they don’t act. What’s their deal?! Enter bitterness.
Eventually, I found myself in a Listening Training class. Through that workshop, I started to realize that my mouth wasn’t the best tool in my toolbelt. My best tool was actually my ears.
It turns out the world is chock full of people who have no one to listen to them. But on the other hand, there’s no end to folks who want to talk at us. We’re under a constant barrage of commentaries, opinions, or advice. In a rare moment, we may find ourselves surrounded by silence. And it’s a stark change from our normal experience. It gets our attention. And if we find someone willing to sit silently and listen to us? That’s gold.
As I took what I learned and began to proactively listen to people—honest to goodness, shut my mouth and listen—I started to see exponential growth in all of my relationships. I was helping way more people—all without giving one ounce of advice.
Because people are often equipped to find solutions to their own problems. They just don’t know or believe it. So they rely on old habits and seek advice from others. The skill of processing and discovering the answer for themselves is not only the best kind of growth for them, it’s also the best way for me to communicate respect and help.
By affording them a safe space to be listened to, I’m giving them the opportunity to learn they have what it takes to move forward. They still seek human connection. But it’s to process issues, not be told what to do. And building confidence in their ability to problem-solve life’s challenges can produce healthier relationships as well as a healthier outlook on life.
And I’m not just helping people I know. Becoming an active listener allows me to serve strangers as well.
Now, I realize not every conversation is a listening opportunity. If I’m at the mall and someone asks me if I know where the closest bathroom is, it wouldn’t be wise to just give them space to process the fact that they have to go.
Or if my daughter asks about how to navigate a relationship, putting on my listening hat will definitely serve that conversation. At some point, though, it will probably be wise for me to share my perspective. I can do that because I have her permission as her father. And she’s asking for my insight. But even when she directly asks, I still believe there’s an opportunity to listen well.
When someone blesses me by being silent, focuses on what I’m saying, and gives me the space to say it, I feel cared for and served. It gives me the space to explore what I’m really feeling. Good or bad. Right or wrong. Valid or invalid. After all, me being good, right, or validated is not what’s trying to be solved. Sometimes I know that what I’m feeling is due to something pushing on past hurt or memory, causing me to react. I just need to walk through the emotion of that. I want to be afforded the space to process without another opinion or angle being thrown at me. And through that given space, I just might start to see a healthy path forward.
Now, I’m a guy. I know you could tell by my powerful writing voice (wait, did you just snicker?). Anyway, as a guy, I’m wired to “fix” things. Just ask my wife of 30+ years. I found that when I was supposed to be listening to her and a problem she wanted to talk about, I was actually listening for the solution. Which meant I wasn’t really listening to her. See the problem?
But I’ve (imperfectly) avoided this pitfall more and more over the last several years. And the reason is that leveraging the skill of listening has greatly increased our trust of and sense of being known by the other. And being more deeply connected means the little things that can bring tension to our marriage; just don’t. Because our sense of intimacy is set in place and therefore ready to repel those pesky frustrations. It’s not unicorns and rainbows. It’s much better than that. It’s a tested and trusted relationship where we know the other is in it for the long haul. Listening has helped us get there.
And it’s not just my own marriage. I’ve seen friendships go from strained to strong because a choice was made by one or both not to “win” in an argument, but to listen to the other and empathize with their perspective and position.
And I have seen others turn their closest family relationships (sometimes the toughest to navigate) back from the brink of disaster after decades of hurt and misunderstanding because someone chose listening over advice or judgment.
So you might be thinking, “OK, Listening Larry, I’m supposed to stand there like a lump while someone chatters on?” First, my name’s not Larry. Second, no lumping.
There are skills to being a good listener. It requires active engagement so the person feels you’re with them as they process through whatever they’re experiencing. We can say a lot by not speaking anything. And when we do speak, we want to do so in a way that helps the person continue to process. Not us nailing some pithy advice.
To master these skills takes training and practice. A lifetime’s worth to be exact. I can’t tell you everything in a five-minute article. But reading this is a start. Consider these:
First, are you someone who always has an opinion? Or thinks they have the best advice ever? I know I can be that person sometimes. Consider just listening to your spouse, friend, or co-worker as they share their lives with you. What a gift you’re receiving by being invited in. What a gift you’re giving by affording them the space to be listened to.
Second, look for training on how to listen better. You might have someone in your life that you think is a good listener. Pay attention to what they do that makes you feel heard. Also, you can check at the bottom of this page for additional resources that we provide. I promise if you learn to listen well, people will want to be around you because you’ll be serving them with a rare gift indeed. You can be an oasis from the onslaught of talking heads, shock jocks, and news show hosts.
So let’s get out there. Shut our mouths. Open our ears. Start helping those around us. And make all of our relationships exponentially better.
We have a listening training class that is offered at various sites throughout the year. If you’re interested, please sign up on this Listening Training Waitlist. Know that we currently have over 100 people on the list and it may take a while to get everyone through. But we’re excited to train you in this skill.
Process, journal or discuss the themes of this article - here's a few questions to get the ball rolling...
What comes to mind when you think of growing as a listener?
Where do you wish someone was listening to you better? What difference would it make?
Think about your relationships—the good ones, the strained ones. Which ones could benefit from trying to listen more than talk? Make a note or put a reminder on your phone to try it out with them this week. See what happens.
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