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You don’t need to be an expert in communication strategies to know when someone is listening to you.
Think back to the last conversation you had with someone who loves you. It was a pleasant conversation, wasn’t it? They asked questions to clarify what you were saying. They summarized you after you were finished (“so, if I’m hearing you correctly, you’re saying…”) They validated your opinions and feelings, whether they agreed or not. If they did disagree, they didn’t allow the disagreement to get in the way of the relationship.
And you likely returned the favor. You do love each other, after all. Truth is, almost everyone knows and practices good communication skills.
So why do so many feel they are not being heard?
The missing piece in our discourse
Philosophy was my first love in college.
The construction and deconstruction of logical arguments fascinated me, and I practiced with whomever I could find (not easy, as many do not love philosophy, let alone practice it). Presenting a complex idea is difficult. It involves carefully laying out one’s premises step by step, including the facts underlying one’s premises. It takes more than a few seconds (Twitter) or a few minutes (blogs). It is also fraught with error: no matter how carefully you lay out your arguments, there is always the possibility of misstating a key premise or providing the wrong example, let alone the potential errors in receiving and hearing what is said.
Philosophy may be a great training ground for logical and rational thought, but it is also a teacher of a key concept not commonly found in today’s modern discourse: charity.
Charity towards another is critical in ensuring understanding. Doing so requires the listener to put aside their own thoughts and opinions, concentrating instead on the presentation of the argument by the other person. The more complex the argument, the greater the attention needed. Making a few presentations of your own will demonstrate the difficulty in presenting a complex argument. Being uncharitable towards others means experiencing that old adage of “what goes around; comes around.”
Charity is what we are missing in much of our modern discourse. We often don’t allow others enough time to formulate and craft a thought before we jump in with our objections. We lack patience because our goal is not to acquire knowledge and wisdom; it’s to show off what we know. Many think they are philosophers; few actually are.
An example from clinical practice
For those who do not love philosophy, I have an additional example. There is a systematized approach incorporating this concept of charity in communication. It’s called motivational interviewing, or MI for short.
You may have heard of it. Conceptualized and developed by Dr. William Miller and Dr. Stephen Rollnick (both clinical psychologists) in the 1980s, MI is “a collaborative conversation style for strengthening a person’s own motivation and commitment to change” (Miller & Rollnick, 2012).
This “style” was developed by Miller when working with those suffering from alcohol addiction. As Miller would later describe, he began to notice that different behavioral therapies had little impact on treatment. Even more surprising, these different treatment options had no discernable difference in outcome between those utilizing a self-help book versus a therapist. After incorporating some of the principles advocated by Carl Rogers (another professional who understood this concept of “charity”), Miller and his team stumbled upon a discovery:
“Of the clients who had worked with the therapist whom we all agreed had shown the highest level of empathetic skill, all had good success in managing their drinking…we were able to predict two-thirds of the variation in clients’ drinking outcomes at 6 months (the number of standard drink units they were consuming weekly) based on how well their counselor had listened to them!”(Miller & Rollnick, 2013)
Miller and Rollnick recognized two interrelated practices with this approach. The method of MI (often abbreviated as OARS) involves asking Open-ended questions requiring more than a simple “yes” or “no”; providing Affirmation of the good (strengths, behaviors, and intentions) in the other person; Reflective listening through constant feedback (indicating active participation by the listener), and Summarizing what the speaker said for additional clarification.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Yet, the spirit of MI is perhaps the most important part. What is the spirit of MI? Validation, evidenced through the charity you extend to the speaker. Without charity, MI becomes a mechanistic and insincere approach. Open-ended questions become condescending, affirmation becomes empty, reflection becomes robotic, and summarizing becomes impossible, because you weren’t really listening anyway: you were only waiting for your turn to show off what you know.
At its core, once a person feels validated through the charity you extend, they are more likely to accept what you have to say regarding what you think and feel, even if you completely disagree with their entire viewpoint. What’s more, you can present the key points where you disagree using their narrative as the foundation for presenting your alternative idea or solution. You are no longer competing over ideas; you are collaborating. “Without this underlying spirit, MI becomes a cynical trick, a way of trying to manipulate people into doing what they don’t want to do” (Miller & Rollnick, 2012).
If you are going to be an agent of change for others, you first have to be a changed person, and this means letting go of the habits of self-centeredness. Do you find this difficult in practice? Miller and Rollnick acknowledged this possibility. To become other-centered is not as simple as flipping a switch; it’s a journey in itself. “If one first had to become profoundly accepting and compassionate before being able to practice MI, the wait could be lifelong” (Miller & Rollnick, 2012).
With that said, the authors also note that “it is our experience that the practice of MI itself teaches these four habits of the heart” (Miller & Rollnick, 2012). If you aren’t getting the results you desire from others, the problem is not them.
It’s you. You may be listening, but you aren’t hearing.
What is the foolproof approach to handling people? Start hearing them.
Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2012). Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change, 3rd Edition (Applications of Motivational Interviewing) (3rd ed.). The Guilford Press.