We have a need to feel heard, to be listened to, to feel understood, to be taken seriously, to have our subjective reality acknowledged, to be validated. Unfortunately, most of us are quite poor listeners, which means that this need often gets thwarted. We learn to speak and read, but not to listen. The competitive Western culture we grow up in incentivizes us from a young age to prove ourselves right and better than others instead of collaborating with them. Social media incentivizes us to come up with bold statements without nuance, focusing on getting quick likes and comments instead of building a community of friends.
These cultural tendencies impact our willingness and ability to explore other perspectives than our own. Because all of us see the world from our unique perspective. We interpret our surroundings differently based on our experiences, upbringing and ways of processing data. There are obviously big similarities in how we perceive reality—we have similar (but far from identical) biological hardware, a human brain and body, but the software—our mental operating system, our habits, knowledge and beliefs—differs in significant ways. Thus, both genetic and environmental differences shape our unique perception of reality. In addition, all of us are influenced by biases and random factors in our environment that distort our perception and affect what we pay attention to.
Consider how two people can have the same objective experience, but interpret it completely differently based on who they are. For example, the same party can be experienced differently based on whether you are socially confident or not. The same airplane ride can be experienced differently based on whether you like flying or not. The same airplane ride or party—the same objective reality—can be experienced as a nightmare or as an adventure based on your subjective perception of the situation.
Consider how two different people could experience a politician on TV. One person might see this politician as a crook that is destroying their country, while the other one sees the politician as a loving father or husband.
Consider how you experience the tree outside your door compared to how a bird experiences it. For you, it is just a tree. For a bird, it might be a place of safety, a place of familiarity, a home.
Consider how your dog might be your best friend, someone who comforts you when you are sad, greets you at the door, a loveable part of your family. For other people, it is just a random dog.
Consider how someone with an eating disorder might feel fat, while everyone else considers them to be sickly thin and every objective measure supports this view. This person will not feel heard if you say, “You’re not fat”. In their mind, they are fat. In their subjective reality, they are fat. And their subjective reality is reality to them. Only if you first acknowledge their subjective reality will they feel understood and be willing to listen to you: “You feel fat and want to be thinner?” Yes! Exactly. “This dog is your best friend?” Yes, he is! “This politician is actually a loving father?” Yes! He has more sides to him than you see on TV. “This tree that I don’t care about, it’s something of great value to someone else than me?” Yes!
Thus, all of us see the world through our own lens, our own mental models, through our own subjective reality that is made up of all our experiences, environmental influences and genetic predispositions. To make someone feel heard, we must do what the American psychologist Carl Rogers suggested: we must try to understand how the other person sees the world, to see the world through their lens, as if we were them, and then communicate our understanding back to them.
Listening is not disagreeing or agreeing or trying to be right. Listening is not challenging or discussing (this can be done on other occasions). Listening is not preparing our answer while we are waiting for our turn to speak. Listening is not thinking about what we would do if we were in the other person’s shoes (because we are another person and would therefore act differently).
Listening is understanding how the other person sees the world—it is exploring their perception of reality. To get into this mindset, we can ask ourselves questions like: If I had this person’s upbringing, if I had this person’s parents, if I learned what this person learned, if I had this person’s personality traits, if I had this person’s beliefs and preferences and values, how would I then see the world? How would I then act? If I were a Jew that grew up in Israel, how would I then see the world? If I were a Muslim that grew up in Palestine, how would I then see the world? If I were brought up in a highly religious family versus an atheist family, how would it have impacted my worldview? If I grew up poor versus rich, how would it have impacted my worldview? Under these different circumstances, what would I be thinking about the world today? How would I be acting and conducting myself based on these different perceptions of reality? The answer is: If I had their beliefs, their thoughts, their habits, their experiences, their upbringing, I would most likely act just like they are acting now.
Listening requires us to temporarily leave behind our own ways of seeing things and be open to experiencing something new. We attempt to leave our own subjective world behind and enter the subjective world of the other person, looking at the world from their perspective. According to Rogers, listening requires courage, because when we enter the subjective world without our defensive barriers, we might be changed by what we see.
Listening requires mental effort to tune into what the other person communicates, the thoughts, ideas and emotions that are expressed through their words, body language, tone of voice, silence and other cues. Listening requires articulation skills to express our understanding back to the other person. Listening requires us to ask: Tell me more instead of saying: Let me tell you why you are wrong. Listening requires us to be able to hold multiple and often contradictory perspectives in our minds simultaneously. It requires mental flexibility and curiosity.
When others understand that we see what they see, they feel heard, and are willing to listen back to us. They feel relieved: Finally, someone who understands me. If we ignore what they see, they will feel alienated and frustrated. They will think: Why aren’t you able to see what is so obvious to me? They will become defensive and lock themselves in their position until someone is willing to step into it and explore it with them without judgment.
Example 1 of thwarting this need: Your friend shares an insecurity he has about his social skills in group settings. You immediately jump in to reassure him: “Don’t worry, I think you’re doing well” (stating your opinion, seeing the world as you see it).
Example 1 of supporting this need: Instead of immediately reassuring him, you try to understand how he experiences the situation. You answer: “So you feel uncomfortable and don’t think you’re coming across as you really want to?” (trying to see the world as he sees it).
Example 2 of thwarting this need: Your friend shares a struggle he is going through. As soon as he is finished talking, you share your own similar struggle and give him all your best advice on how to solve the situation.
Example 2 of supporting this need: Your friend shares a struggle he is going through. You listen carefully to attempt to understand how he experiences it. You validate his experience: “I can see how it must be hard and tiring for you that your boss constantly has emotional outbursts.” After you have acknowledged his subjective experience, you might want to share your own experiences if it is appropriate (reduces his sense of feeling alone) and talk about what worked for you in a similar situation (you talk about your own experience, but accept that his experience is different from yours. By talking about what worked for you instead of giving him advice, you respect his autonomy and avoid putting yourself in a superior position.)
Example 3 of thwarting this need: Your friend is telling you a story. You are sitting there nodding and saying “mhm”, “mhm”, “mhm”. Your friend has no idea whether you understood a word of what he said.
Example 3 of supporting this need: In addition to some occasional “mhm”, you from time-to-time paraphrase to show you are following along: “Oh, so this man gave you the wrong direction?”, “Sounds stressful running around not figuring out where to go”. When your friend hears the sentences and words he has used said back to him loudly, he understands that you are actually following along.
Example 4 of thwarting this need: Your little brother is upset after your mother restricted his gaming time to 2 hours a day from his usual 10 hours. You tell him: “It’s not the end of the world, get over it”.
Example 4 of supporting this need: You try to see the world from your brother’s perspective. You know that these video games are an important part of his current life. He plays with a lot of his friends, and he feels mastery while playing. He finds a lot of joy in this activity and his current life is built around it. You validate your brother’s subjective experience: “I can understand that it feels unfair that you can’t play as much. I know gaming is very important to you.” Notice that you are not agreeing or disagreeing with him. You are not saying that it is unfair or that it is fair. You are expressing that you can understand that this new restriction feels unfair for someone who is accustomed to playing 12 hours a day. You are emphasizing with him. Even if you have never played a video game in your life, you can understand what it feels like to have something you care about taken away from you. You are simply temporarily seeing the world as he sees it and showing him that you understand what he feels. After you have validated his subjective experience, you might want to explore some other ideas with him, for example that there are advantages to prioritizing other dimensions of life (health, school, relationships, other hobbies etc.)
Example 5 of thwarting this need: Your friend seems disappointed about something. You ask him if something is wrong. He says, “No”. You say, “Okay, good”, then move on with your day.
Example 5 of supporting this need: Instead of taking his words at face value, you trust your human intuition that has evolved to be highly sensitive to bodily cues over thousands of years. You say: “I can see you are disappointed about something. I’m here if you want to talk about it,” giving your friend the opportunity to disclose his thoughts to you if he feels like it.
Example 6 of thwarting this need: Your colleague starts talking about something that is in the news. You have read about it yourself. As soon as he starts talking, you recognize a word that indicates which side he is on in this debate. You immediately categorize him as “one of those”. You put a smug smile on your face while you are waiting to deliver your response.
Example 6 of supporting this need: Instead of categorizing your colleague “as one of those”, you listen with an open mind and realize that your immediate reaction could be wrong. While listening, you realize that your colleague has views that cannot be easily categorized. He articulates some benefits and costs to both sides of the debate. His viewpoint cannot be categorized as “for” or “against”. He is not taking a clear side. He even said something you had not previously considered.
Key take-away: Do not immediately jump in to share the world as you perceive it. First, try to see the world as others see it and share your understanding of what the other person expresses.
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