Listening to Others: Part 5 How to control your emotions to listen when someone frustrates, angers, or hurts you.

True listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give someone. But we often forget that we can’t listen and focus on ourselves at the same time. 

Listening requires that we focus exclusively on understanding the other person. This is a real challenge when strong emotions take hold of us. How can we focus on understanding another person when they say things that make our muscles twitch, our blood boil, or our heart sink? Here are my three tips for dealing with strong emotions.

Tip #1: Know you can choose your response

We can’t control what someone will say. But we can choose how we respond. Being proactive is the first habit in Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This is in contrast to being reactive, where you instead let your impulses respond for you. 

I want to share a story from Covey’s book that really illustrates what being proactive means. Here it is in Covey’s own words:

‘Once in Sacramento when I was speaking on the subject of Proactivity, a woman in the audience stood up in the middle of my presentation and started talking excitedly. It was a large audience, and as a number of people turned to look at her, she suddenly became aware of what she was doing, grew embarrassed, and sat back down. But she seemed to find it difficult to restrain herself and started talking to the people around her. She seemed so happy.

I could hardly wait for a break to find out what had happened. When it finally came, I immediately went to her and asked if she would be willing to share her experience.

“You just can’t imagine what’s happened to me!” she exclaimed. “I’m a full-time nurse to the most miserable, ungrateful man you can possibly imagine. Nothing I do is good enough for him. He never expresses appreciation; he hardly even acknowledges me. He constantly harps at me and finds fault with everything I do. This man has made my life miserable and I often take my frustration out on my family. The other nurses feel the same way. We almost pray for his demise.”

“And for you to have the gall to stand up there and suggest that no one can hurt me without my consent and that I have chosen my own emotional life of being miserable – well, there was just no way I could buy into that. But I kept thinking about it. I really went inside myself and began to ask, ‘Do I have the power to choose my response?” “When I finally realized that I do have that power, when I swallowed that bitter pill and realized that I had chosen to be miserable, I also realized that I could choose not to be miserable.”

“At that moment I stood up. I felt as though I was being let out of San Quentin. I wanted to yell to the whole world, ‘I am free! I am let out of prison! No longer am I going to be controlled by the treatment of some person.”

As Stephen Covey says: “It’s not what happens to us, but our response to what happens to us that hurts us.” When someone makes a hurtful comment, remember you are free to choose your response to it. You might still feel your pulse vibrating, but you can choose to not let it turn to anger, and to instead say: “Tell me more.”

Tip #2: Ask “Why would they say that?”

In my previous article, I recommended that we should ask ourselves Why would they say that?” when someone starts criticizing us. This question is golden because it makes us become curious. And curiosity is what drives us to seek understanding. 

Curiosity makes us shift our attention from ourselves to the other person.
Curiosity tempers our ego and our impulses to react emotionally.
Curiosity gets us to ask questions and encourages us to see the world through their eyes.

Asking Why would they say that?” is a secret method you can use to inject yourself with a curiosity boost whenever emotions start running high. You will immediately feel calmer because you can’t be angry and curious at the same time. 

Tip #3: Reframe negative people as positive

Author Rhonda Byrne has a great method for reframing frustrating people as positive. She views them as Personal Emotional Trainers; PETs – people whose job it is to train you into a calmer, wiser, and more empathetic human being. PETs aren’t here to make your life sunny and rosy. On the contrary. The whole point of a PET is to stretch your emotional tolerance so you can practice responding more proactively. 

The next time someone gets under your skin, tell yourself: “Perfect! Now I get to practice being the responsible and empathetic person I aspire to be.” Reframing frustrations into a precious opportunity for growth encourages you to be more proactive vs reactive. 

Summary

We can only listen to someone’s needs by temporarily suspending our own needs. But suspending our own egos is extremely challenging when our emotions run hot. However, by:

1) remembering that we are free to choose our response,
2) inviting curiosity by asking: “Why would they say that?”, and
3) reframing frustrations as precious opportunities for growth

we can begin to make headway! I want to leave you with a final quote from the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl: 

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

As people continue to do things that frustrate, anger, and exasperate you, remember that space between what they do and how you respond. In that space lies your chance to become not only the listener – but the friend, mother, or husband you know you want to be. 

Who frequently gets under your skin? What is it that they say or do to frustrate you? How can you choose to respond as a better person next time?


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  1. Pingback: Listening to Others: Part 2 | Weekly Success Insights

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