Updated: Apr 18, 2022
Have you ever gone through an experience you felt was so excruciatingly stupid it just made you want to scream? Of course you have! Lots of times, I’m sure. Me too. Let me tell you about my latest.
It was a meeting of fellow professionals. The facilitator began—maybe because she’d read about this exercise in a book about facilitating—by asking us for one or two words that to us meant someone was listening. As we went around the room, the answers were all like, “eye contact,” “body language,” and, in one case, “heart eyes.”
I didn’t say anything, because that wasn’t what the meeting was about and because I didn’t want to come across like an asshole--which I would have--especially since everybody liked the facilitator (who seemed to love these answers). But in fact these answers bugged the hell out of me. They seemed wrong and stupid to me. And if you’re thinking, “Gee, they seem like good answers to me,” then you definitely need to keep reading.
Because we have GOT to get to the heart of what communicating is really all about, and I’m not going to take any prisoners.
Let’s start with why there’s any communication at all. It’s because someone needs to be heard and responded to fully and appropriately. If I’m saying something to you, I’m needing you to know
what I’m saying,
why I’m saying it, and
what I want you to do about it.
Then I need to know your response to my expressed need.
Will you meet my need?
If you need something yourself to be able to meet my need, what is that?
So even if I just say, “It’s raining out,” I’m going to be pretty disappointed if your response is “I hear you saying it’s raining out.” I’m saying those words, most likely, because I think they’re news and I hope you respond with something like, “Oh, really! Wow! Yeah, and it’s really coming down.”
To say you were listening because you made eye contact and were leaning forward is ridiculous. These are tokens of listening, and nothing is easier to fake. And even if sincere, they don’t get the job done.
Real communication is if I say, “My hair is on fire,” and you pour a glass of water on my head.
So how do we go from “listening” to actually communicating?
1. The person who starts has some responsibility for making herself understood. If I starting talking and I don’t know what I’m saying, why I’m saying it, or what I want to get out of saying it, and then if I take a long, rambling, disorganized path to saying all this, how the HELL will you know what to do with what I’ve just said?? So if you tend to do this when you talk, cut it out.
And if you’re on the receiving end of this as the listener, CLARIFY THE TAKE-AWAY. It’s easy to do that. Just ask!: “Well, that was a lot for me to absorb. What do you want me to take away from what you’ve said?” And keep asking for clarity until you’ve gotten it.
2. Show you understand. You don’t have to repeat back the other person’s words. Just give a clear sense of what they’ve said, why they’ve said it, and what they’re asking for. Don’t respond until the other person says, yeah, you’ve understood.
For example, “Okay, you’ve said a lot, but what I get is that you’re really unhappy with how drab and old-fashioned our furnishings are, but you’re also aware we’re on a tight budget, so you’re afraid to bring this up with me. But you are bringing this up, because living in this house the way things are is just very depressing for you. And you want me to try to be flexible enough with our budget so we can make some changes. Is that about it?”
You win with your “showing understanding” statement when the other person says, “Yes, that’s what I’m saying. You understand how I feel.”
3. Figure out what this is a bid for. But there's more. Much more. Every communication is a bid for something. A request. Now it might just be a request to be heard. For me to speak and to know you've listened. But this is actually rare. Much more common is that I speak as a bid for you to understand and be changed in some way. Maybe be changed in the sense of going on to do something specific. Or to understand things about me in a new way that will be reflected in your behavior in the future.
Whatever it is that I'm making a bid for, you haven't been listening unless you heard and understood what I'm asking for, shown me that you hear and understand that, and shown me how you're going to address that.
4. Show you care. You can’t omit this step. Just realize that showing you care doesn’t commit you to doing anything. It just buys you insurance against looking like an asshole. Caring is just acknowledging you get how and why what’s important to the other person is important. “I get it! You grew up with nice things, and you’ve been going through a tough period, and our furniture is old, so I can totally see why this would really get to you. I feel so badly that you have to deal with this.”
5. If you know what the other person needs, and you can say yes, and you know you’re going to say yes, then for God’s say, just say yes. This issue causes more pain than you could possibly believe. I want X. You could say yes to X but you say no, and we have a high-speed car chase up and down the hills of San Francisco and finally you do say yes. So much pain and damage, when you could have just said yes to start with.
To avoid this mess, don’t say anything. Say, “Let me think about it.” And if after thinking about it it becomes clear you’re going to end up saying yes, then say yes.
6. Instead of having a discussion about yes or no as an either/or thing, have a discussion about how the two of you can try to get to yes. “I think you nailed the situation. We really do need to fix things up around here. But, as you said, money’s tight. We don’t have $5,000 we can pull out of our butt to make this happen. So what might be something affordable we could do that would be a step in the right direction?”
You see, we have only just now, finally, gotten to listening!! The person who needed to be listened to is with this step getting what it really meant for her to be listened to. And what was that?
There was a real change in her partner. She had a sense that her words mattered. She spoke, the other person grasped the meaning and intent of those words, and stepped up to whatever the hell it was that was required.
No one ever wants just tokens of listening from the other person. At a minimum, they want proof of comprehension and understanding. Then maybe validation. Maybe empathy. Maybe the other person joining in saying, yeah, me too. And sometimes positive action.
We’ve never, ever lived in a world where eye contact alone could get the job done.
Note: The pic next to "2. Show you understand" is a still from the 1981 Louis Malle film My Dinner with Andre, starring Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory.