I recently took my son to see the new Pixar movie Inside Out and was struck by one scene in particular that is the example of how great listening works. Here is Amy Poehler talking in a recent NPR interview about the character of Sadness and her ability to be empathetic to another character:
POEHLER: It’s such a funny opposite energy to Joy, who is literally jumping up and down. And Sadness just wants to lie down and kind of feel her feelings. And there’s a beautiful moment where Sadness sits down next to a character, and he’s upset about something. And Joy’s first instinct is to kind of distract him and cheer him up and talk over him. And Sadness sits down next to him and says I’m very sorry that you lost something that you love. That must make you very sad. And frankly, it’s like a pamphlet on how to speak about loss because it’s just someone sitting next to you and saying I’m very sorry that you’re sad and you lost something that you love, and that must be hard. The end.
(This is Sadness)
(or how I feel about the Red Sox’s season…)
What was fascinating about the movie is how well it shows the way that our emotions can drive our reactions and how powerful it can be when we take the time to really connect with where people are at emotionally.
I think that most of us (I include myself in this) don’t listen to other people when they share something upsetting. Most often we seek to make it better or rush to change the subject. Sometimes we might even get in an argument, saying something akin to “Don’t be so melodramatic” or “There’s nothing to be worried about.” We deflect, placate, ignore and humor, all so that we don’t have to be flooded by their emotions.
(So many emotions…)
Most of us would like to be heard when we talk. Maybe we even complain about this after a meeting at work or when we go out to dinner with our family or friends. If you have ever had someone really listen to you, someone who didn’t disregard or fix what you were telling them, then you know how valuable and unique an experience it is.
How can we get better at it?
Well, there are a few things that we can do to improve our listening skills, and our relationships both at work and at home. Practice these a little each day, and you will be surprised at how quickly you become a better listener.
1. Stay physically open
The more that you can be neutral and open in your body language, the more likely the other person is going to feel safe with you. Pay attention to closed, “clutching” body language that could signal impatience, disappointment and disinterest. This can also be in your tone of voice and in the way that you urge people to continue talking (as though you just want them to get it over with).
2. Seek to clarify
When people tell you things, listen for understanding and repeat back to them what you have heard. Most people are so accustomed to not being heard that they speak in generalities or use vague language.
Person A: “There’s just a lot of stuff going on right now.”
Person B: “There’s a lot of ‘stuff’ going on? What kind of stuff?”
Person A: “Well, for starters I got demoted at work…”
I believe that one of the reasons we let people get away with being vague (and why people are often vague) is because we just don’t want to know. Too many feelings to feel. I just want to talk about this hamburger, dammit.
3. Have the courage to feel the feelings
There is a great quote from Danny Musico who is a former boxer and current Hollywood trainer about courage and emotions. He says, “Guys who chicken out, who panic, are in most cases guys who are trying to hide from their feelings. Tough guys feel that fear; they embrace it. Experience what’s happening inside you, accept it, and keep going.”
(And wear a $4000 Armani suit. That helps too.)
The real problem with listening is that you have to hear what’s going on in other people, and that can be upsetting. We experience so many emotions: jealousy, fear, anger, disgust, and sadness. We might even have to experience someone else’s joy, which can cause any one of those feelings above to be triggered.
The times that it is most difficult are when those feelings and the person we are listening to are directly in conflict with us. THAT is challenging. And for that, we need to…
4. Take a deep breath and seek to understand (don’t take it personally)
When someone is angry at us or when people give us feedback that we might not like, it is easy for our vision and our world to become very, very narrow.
(This is a dramatic reenactment of what it feels like to get negative feedback)
One way out is to trick yourself into being an objective observer. Become curious about the other person’s intentions (and ignore for a moment your own emotional freakout). Listening is not an abdication, nor is it an admission of guilt. You are merely trying to understand. If you can take a deep breath (almost like a sigh without the sadness) and force your body to stay open, you will often find that the other person will be less triggered as well. If the two of you can settle down, then you will be able to seek a common understanding. Or at least talk about it like rational beings.
In short, listening is about staying open, reflecting back what you heard and being curious about the other person. The obstacles are our thoughts (or assumptions), our aversion to feelings and our non-verbal body language. The more that we can seek clarification and not judge, the more that we will hear and learn about people and the more connected and trustworthy we will become to them.
Give it a try. What’s the worst that could happen?
(Okay, that would be pretty bad, but unlikely)