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Friday, October 29, 2010

I Know You Believe You Understand What You Think I Said, But Did You Really Understand What I Meant?

                                           The Art of Listening

This week I had two experiences of being completely unheard.  These are not pleasant experiences.  In these cases, both instances were not in close, much less, intimate, relationships---they were business dealings, frustrating, disturbing but not painful like this can be in a personal relationship.

In one situation, the misunderstanding took place in what one might expect to be a completely benign, routine setting, the post office.  However, human beings have to interact there and so the possibility of a difficult interpersonal exchange exists.  I wanted to send a letter very quickly and have it delivered to a specific person at a business, so I was sending it by "express mail".  When I got to the counter, the clerk asked what qualities I was looking for in using a special type of mailing.  So I wanted those two things, plus the insurance, tracking and signature that express mail affords.  As I answered him,  he had trouble understanding me.  He began to argue with me and when I tried to clarify, he continued arguing, trying actually to bully me by saying things like, "I know what I am talking about, I've been doing this for 20 years!!"  (Meanwhile the line was building up behind me and so I turned and said, "Sorry" to the people who were  waiting and witnessing this now, heated argument.)  The clerk threw up his hands and said he would call in the supervisor.  So he did. She came; I explained what I understood "express mail" to provide, she (listened) and said, "That's right."  And we were finished in about 30 seconds...!

What happened there is that he did not understand the way I was explaining how I thought express mail worked.  Since he couldn't understand, he became frustrated and tried to overwhelm me.  Meanwhile, I was persistent in repeatedly trying to help him to understand.  He is familiar with me as a customer, calls me by my first name, knows me to be a reasonable person.  So, I think it was confusing to him to be in this kind of encounter with me, thus he resorted to bullying tactics.  This, of course, was ineffective since I had read the instructions and knew that I understood how that type of mailing worked. 

If he had remained calm (he lost his patience), I would have continued trying to explain to him, would have tried different approaches, to explain in a way that he could understand and, perhaps, this upsetting encounter could have been avoided.  He did not want to listen, however, and that is what set this off.

In the 1970's, Carl Rogers became quite well-known in psychology for his identification and description of "active listening".  He, himself, became so adept at this technique that he used it and it alone in therapy treatment of his patients.  I saw him working in a therapy session that was filmed and I witnessed his amazing ability to assist a person to move toward a healthier psychological position simply by listening to that person very, very well. It was remarkable to witness.

Should you ever have an opportunity to view Rogers at work, take it!  It is like watching a miracle to see one person heal themselves due, simply to, the true and benevolent presence of another.
So, here we have the two ends of the spectrum regarding the practice of listening.  My unfortunate event at the post office demonstrates how not listening can lead to an unnecessary fight.  At the other end of the spectrum, we see that active listening can lead to healing and personal evolution.
That's quite a wide spectrum.  There's a lot that can be tried in between those two extremes.
None of us will be perfect.  But we can aspire toward better listening.  It is a gift to offer to the people in your life.  One of the reasons, I think, that it is sometimes difficult to get a client moving to leave the therapy office, at the end of a session, is that it feels so good to be listened to-such a rare experience.  Most people are absolutely hungry to be heard.

The method for active listening is laid out in Roger's writings.  It is a useful technique to learn.

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