Isn’t it frustrating when someone asks to talk with you only to resent your input? Why do they ask for your thoughts if they aren’t willing to listen to you?
I have struggled a lot with this issue myself. That was until I read Stephen Covey’s bestselling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The fifth success habit is “Seek first to understand. Then to be understood”.
Seeking first to understand means that you temporarily let go of your own needs. Only when you are open to being influenced – to see things from the other person’s point of view – can you influence them.
When the listener fails to let go of their own needs
Let’s look at an example conversation between a father and son from Covey’s book. The parentheses (…) are what the boy is thinking.
Boy: “Dad, I’ve had it! School is for the birds!” (I feel upset and I want to talk with you, Dad.)
Dad: “What’s the matter, Son?” (You’re interested! Good!)
Boy: “It’s totally impractical. I don’t get a thing out of it.” (I’ve got a problem with school, and I feel just terrible).
Dad: “Well, you just can’t see the benefits yet, son. I felt the same way when I was your age.” (Oh, no! Here comes Chapter 3 of Dad’s autobiography. This isn’t what I want to talk about.)
Dad: “I remember thinking what a waste some of the classes were. But those classes turned out to be the most helpful to me later on. Just hang in there. Give it some time.” (Time won’t solve my problem. I wish I could tell you, Dad.)
Boy: “I’ve given it 10 years of my life! Can you tell me what good ‘x plus y’ is going to do me as an auto mechanic?”
Dad: “An auto mechanic? You’ve got to be kidding!” (He wouldn’t like me if I were an auto mechanic. I have to justify what I said.)
Boy: “No, I’m not. Look at Joe. He’s quit school. He’s working on cars. And he’s making lots of money. Now that’s practical.”
Dad: “It may look that way now. But several years down the road, Joe’s going to wish he’d stayed in school.” (Oh, Boy! Here comes lecture nr 16 on the value of an education.) “You don’t want to be an auto mechanic.” (How do you know that, Dad? Do you really have any idea what I want?) “You need an education to prepare you for something better than that.”
Boy: “I don’t know. Joe’s got a pretty good set-up.” (He didn’t finish school and he’s not a failure.)
Dad: “Look, Son, have you really tried?” (We’re beating around the bush, Dad. If you’d just listen, I really need to talk to you about something important.)
The father really cared about his son. But he let his own needs get in the way of listening to what his son wanted to say. The father wasn’t open to being influenced, and thus couldn’t influence his son.
How the conversation could have turned out differently
Boy: “Dad, I’ve had it! School is for the birds!” (I feel upset and I want to talk with you.)
Dad: “You’re really frustrated about school.” (That’s right! That’s how I feel.)
Boy: “I sure am. It’s totally impractical. I’m not getting a thing out of it.”
Dad: “You feel like school’s not doing you any good.” (Wait. Is that what I mean?)
Boy: “Well, yeah. I’m just not learning anything that’s going to help me. I mean, look at Joe. He’s dropped out of school and he’s working on cars. He’s making money. Now that’s practical.”
Dad: “You feel that Joe really has the right idea.”
Boy: “Well, I guess he does in a way. He’s really making money now. But in a few years I bet he’ll probably be ticked off at himself.”
Dad: “You think Joe’s going to feel he made the wrong decision.”
Boy: “He’s got to. Just look at what he’s giving up. I mean, if you don’t have an education, you just can’t make it in this world.”
Dad: “Education is really important.”
Boy: “Oh, yeah! I mean, if you don’t have a diploma, if you can’t get jobs or go to college, what are you going to do? You’ve just got to get an education.”
Dad: “It’s important to your future.”
Boy: “It is. And, you know what? I’m really worried. Listen, you won’t tell Mom, will you?”
Dad: “You don’t want your mother to find out.”
Boy: “Well, not really. Oh, I guess you can tell her. She’ll probably find out anyway. Look, I took this test today, this reading test. And, Dad, they said I’m reading on a fourth-grade level. Fourth grade! And I’m in junior high school!”
Dad: “You feel torn. You’re in the middle of a dilemma.”
Boy: “What do you think I should do, Dad?”
Your job as a listener is to be a sounding board for the talker. Rephrase their feelings and circumstances in your words. This lets them know that you are listening and encourages them to open up further.
The next time someone asks to talk with us, let’s suspend our own needs. Let’s be a sounding board. Let’s rephrase what the talker is going through in our own words to show that we hear them.
Let’s first seek to understand. Then to be understood.
Did you enjoy this post? Check out:
- Listening to Others Part 2: Two techniques for avoiding arguments
- Listening to Others Part 3: Why people resist your input and two techniques for finding solutions together
- Listening to Others Part 4: Why others become upset when you try to help – and the #1 thing you can do differently
- Listening to Others Part 5: How to control your emotions to listen when someone frustrates or angers you
- Listening to Others Part 6: Three tips that will make you love listening