The Listening Problem (What am I doing Wrong?)

Is it possible to listen too well?

I’ve had the experience, more than once, where I’ve listened, someone has shared far too much, stopped themselves and then didn’t know what to do next. And I’ve left it. And them.

And I don’t know what happened. Or what I did wrong. Or what to do right next time.

And I’m writing this as I need advice.

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I mean I took my mother’s advice. “How do you talk to girls?” asked my brother. “Get them talking about themselves,” was the reply appended to yet another convoluted Mum story.

I do ask questions. I do listen. I mean I still interrupt far too often. And I do think my paraphrasing needs improving. So clearly I have work to do. But so often something odd happens…

If the person to whom I am listening is upset I’ll listen actively and find out more about what’s really happening. And that seems to help.

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I in fact rarely offer advice. I simply don’t know enough to say. And the last time I did advise, the receiver stopped walking and stared at me utterly stunned.  And for all I know it might’ve been the right advice.

And if what has happened to another has upset me, I don’t talk about my upset. I talk about theirs. 

If I do talk about upset, I often populate my stories with other people who have experienced similar situations. But I don’t tout that as any sort of advice. My experience, their experience is never the same. As was said to me, “Just because you’ve had the same experience, doesn’t mean you’ve experienced it the same way.”

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And usually I won’t say how my experience has affected me. I’m like the guy in the Touching the Void documentary: talking about what happens to me as if from afar.

But rarely do I talk about how things have affected me directly. The only example involved a call I took which ended with the speaker saying how she would live a life that honoured her father and mother. After which I was so upset I couldn’t take calls anymore.

Which means I don’t talk much about myself. How do I know that? Because I’m listening to myself talk. I’m focussed on what I’m saying and how it is being received. I don’t really know why. Am I waiting for the listener to stop listening?

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Which means I am applying some sort of vetting system. And it applies even in so-called safe situations such as counselling.

And I’ve noticed two things.

First, people become comfortable and then quite uncomfortable afterwards. And one example will suffice as a description for the others. There was one person, who after she poured out her problems to me completely ignored me the next time she saw me. Because (I surmise) she had said too much the week before.  And I left her and the group we were in.

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Secondly, what I do is almost unbreakable as for me talking about myself. I can really only recall two occasions where I’ve really felt safe enough to share confidences.

The first time belonged to a woman who within ten minutes of meeting me was sharing her experience of Domestic Violence. And I shared my experiences which matched hers.

The second still remains nebulous and as the speaker/listener stated happened organically. I still don’t know what happened. All I knew was I could ask anything and say anything and be heard. And vice versa I trust.

The first insight I have came from a former manager who more or less said I created a safe space for people. I just shook my head and said I have no idea what I do or how I do it. 

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My only insight comes from working this backwards.  Clearly I can’t talk about what I feel without feeling safe. I can’t talk unless I feel the other person understands my experience. But first I must understand theirs : as best as I can.

And my guess as to why? So they don’t feel as misunderstood as me. But why does it make people uncomfortable? What am I doing wrong?

Perhaps for a moment briefly I created a safe sanctuary…

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