How We Can All Feel Listened To

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast:

How We Can All Feel Listened To

Episode 022 · Duration: 00:10:55

How We Can All Feel Listened To

Do you sometimes hear, “You never listen to me,” when you know you’re listening all the time?

I was out for my jog around the Santa Cruz Harbor the other day when I ran into a client I had seen around 20 years ago. I’ll call her Amy. We chatted and she told me a story. In counseling, I had told her that her husband wasn’t meeting any of her emotional needs. Amy said that she was too embarrassed at the time to tell me that she didn’t know what emotional needs were. Since then, she learned and grew to know more about the world of feelings and emotional needs, but still at the time, she didn’t know what I was talking about.

This got me thinking that I still take too much for granted with my clients and that things that I’ve learned over 40 years of being a therapist aren’t necessarily knowledge and skills that everyone has or should be expected to have.

This applies with a theme or pattern that has emerged in my counseling office this week that I’d like to share with you. It’s on the subject of listening. I’ve had several families struggle with connecting with each other successfully, in large part because they weren’t listening to each other, so no one was feeling listened to. And, just to be clear, feeling listened to is one of our emotional needs.

Feeling listened to is one of our emotional needs. Click To Tweet

I thought about my conversation with Amy and realized that I had been assuming people know what I mean by listening and when I point out that they need to do more of it, they’re lost. Many people haven’t been listened to in their lives and so don’t know how to do it for others either. In all of those sessions, I taught and coached listening skills and it helped a lot.

So, let’s talk about listening now. Listening can mean many things. If I stop and listen on a walk, I’ll hear sounds around me, maybe the cars, the wind, the birds, or a dog barking. But listening in personal communication is something different. It means more than that. Listening in this context means listening and responding in a way that offers emotional support.

Listen and respond in a way that offers emotional support. Click To Tweet

First, we pay attention not only to the words, but to the thoughts and feelings behind those words. Then, we let the other person know that we understand and care about their thoughts and feelings. In family relationships, this empathy for the person’s thoughts and feelings is a critical part of being connected. When people talk and they don’t experience being listened to, they will either fight and argue, or withdraw and give up with limitations on the connection.

Here is how this might look. Let’s take a common situation where you’re telling your 15 year-old son that he can’t go to the unsupervised party he wants to go to. He says: you never let me go anywhere.

It would be easy to react and say: Of course I do. You went out with your friends yesterday and I drove you and Evan to the skate park on Tuesday, so you get to go lots of places, just not to an unsupervised party and that’s that.

In this case, Mom did hear what her son said, but her response didn’t help him feel listened to or understood. What if Mom listened to the feelings below the words, and responded with: I know you’re upset and disappointed. Some of your friends will be going and it sounds fun and exciting to you and you want to be part of it. I want you to know that unsupervised parties for teenagers are very dangerous. Often, parents don’t know about them so damage happens to houses, kids do things and take risks that are dangerous, and very often drink and use other drugs. It’s an unhealthy situation. They often get out of control when some kids text other kids and it can turn into a very serious situation.

In this case, her son still isn’t going, but Mom empathized with his feelings and explained her reasoning to him. He still might be in a mood about it, but at least he doesn’t feel shut down. While he might not like the result, he at least heard Mom’s reasoning and can learn from that.

The listening Mom did was to the thoughts and feelings that were underneath her son’s words and were what was really going on for him.

Now let’s have a wife talking to her husband.

Jack, when you tell me on Saturday morning that you’re off to go golfing, it’s just more of you making our family and the kids my problem and you not taking any responsibility. If this is our family, you need to participate.

His response: What do you mean not participate? I do tons for this family, I told you I might be going golfing but Rick wasn’t sure about his travel schedule and then at the last minute he said yes, so we’re playing. Why is it such a big deal?

How about if Jack had responded: I’m sorry Ann. This didn’t come together until the last minute. I shouldn’t have said yes without coordinating with you. I know you need support and I miss you and the kids too. You’re there for the kids and me all the time and you need a break so I understand why you’re upset.

Much different, right? When we listen but don’t help the other person feel empathized with, or know that we care about their feelings, it creates alienation, arguments, and, I dare say Control Battles. When we respond first with some acknowledgement of the other person’s thoughts and feelings, we help the person feel better, we avoid fights, build connection, and end or avoid Control Battles.

So you may be thinking, is this realistic? Can I really do this every time there’s an objection or a problem? Probably not. Maybe you won’t have time or energy to be fully present and empathetic for everyone every time. I certainly don’t. Let’s at least commit to doing a light version of listening so that at the very least, the other person feels acknowledged and because of that, at least somewhat cared about.

Before getting into any argument or explaining yourself, or getting upset with someone, acknowledge their feelings in some simple way. For instance, you’ve told your daughter to come set the table and she’s staying on her phone. Rather than saying: How many times do I need to call you? Try: I know it’s hard to stop when you’re texting with your friends, but I need you come to the table now so it doesn’t hold up dinner.

How about when your partner says: How can you say that? Rather than justify what you said, simply say: I see it upset you, before explaining your reasoning.

So, let’s all give it a try for a week, and at the end of the week see if your arguments go down, and the connections feel better. I’m pretty darn sure they will.

Now you might be thinking, Neil, I can do all the work and help everyone else feel heard, what about me. When will I get listened to? Obviously we can’t grab someone by the shirt collar and say, listen to me or else. But have faith, if you lead, others may just follow.

Have faith, if you lead, others may just follow. Click To Tweet

Amy, it was great running into you (no pun intended) and I’m grateful for your honest feedback. I’m a better therapist for it.

If you’ve got a question or a topic you’d like to hear about, submit your question by clicking the link below, I’d love to hear from you.

And please, take care of yourselves. You need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it.


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