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“Hear me!”: Some Thoughts on Listening and the Longing to be Heard

Here’s what I think: There is a serious lack of listening going on in our world. Would you agree? I’m pretty confident that if humans were listening more, we wouldn’t still be using bombs and guns to try to solve our conflicts. I’m pretty sure that if we were listening more, we wouldn’t be spending so much time fighting wars, big and small, external and internal. I truly believe that if we were listening more, we’d have more peace.

I’m not just talking about world peace. While I long for that and do believe it’s possible, I’d like to focus on something less abstract and more manageable here. I’m interested in you, as you are, finding more peace in your life, as it is, right now.

And I think listening is key.

Last week I wrote about listening inside, listening to what you’re feeling and needing when you’re upset about something. In NVC lingo, we call this self-empathy. This is the foundation for connection—with ourselves, each other, and the world. If we are not in touch with what we’re feeling and needing, there’s little hope that we’re going to have satisfying relationships, and it’s much more likely that we’re going to be blaming, fighting, and harming ourselves and others.

Now that you’ve hopefully been practicing listening to yourself, I’d like to ask you a question: When you’re feeling upset about something, what do you most want?

From my own experience, usually what I most want is to be heard. This is particularly true if I’m upset about something that someone else did, and even truer if that person is significant to me. I really want them to know how hurt or angry or disappointed I feel. Trouble is, if I’m not careful and conscious, I’m likely to express myself in a way that decreases the likelihood that they will actually hear me and increases the likelihood that they will get defensive and tune me out.

It goes something like this:

Person A: You never call me!
Person B: What are you talking about? I call you all the time.
Person A: No you don’t. You’re always so busy. You never have time for me.
Person B: Never have time for you? We hang out all the time. You’re so needy!

Sound familiar?

When I reflect on the number of conversations I’ve had in my life like this, where I’m upset about something and try to talk about it and end up feeling even worse, I feel a tremendous sense of sadness. All those missed opportunities for getting heard and receiving care, all those missed opportunities for sweet, loving connection.

One of the gifts I’ve gotten from NVC is a deeper understanding of how to express myself in a way that is more likely to enable me to be heard for my pain, and also how to listen to others when it is clear that they really want to be heard for their pain. I’d like to share some of this with you today.

When I work with couples, this is what I often see: just like Person A and Person B above, each person is in some degree of emotional pain and wants to be seen and heard, and neither one is focusing on seeing or hearing the other. It’s like a ping-pong match of blame and counter-blame. No one is listening! As the outside observer/couples therapist, I’m able to see beneath the blame, and I can sense how each person is actually saying something like, “Hear me! I’m in pain!” But I know how hard it is to be inside the conflict and how easy it is to miss that, especially when we’re believing our judgments about who this person is, or how they’re “always” this, or “too” that.

If this disconnecting way of communicating is familiar to you, a) join the club, and b) take heart! There is an alternative and in NVC it’s called empathy. Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of NVC, defines empathy as “a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing.” I like the simplicity of this definition, and I especially like how NVC offers two very clear suggestions for how to do it:

  1. Offer your human presence. Really be there. Open your mind and heart to receiving the experience of the other person.
  2. Get curious. What might they be feeling? What might they be needing?

Because most of us have not been taught to listen empathically to others, we tend to do one or more of the following when “listening”: analyze, judge, sympathize, give advice, educate, console, story-tell, ask a lot of questions, explain, or correct. And I think the one we do the most when someone is angry and blaming us is defend.

When we’re busy defending ourselves against attack, we can’t really listen to the other. But this is exactly what the other person is begging for, albeit indirectly and unskillfully. But when we can take a breath (and a leap of faith!) and bravely try to get curious about what they’re experiencing—What are they feeling? What are they needing?—there’s often an opening, and a softening. We start to remember, “Just like me, this person has feelings and needs. Just like me, this person wants to be heard and understood. Just like me, this person experiences pain. Oh, okay. Now I can try to listen.” What I often find is that if I can be the first one to take that leap of faith, temporarily put down my “weapons,” take a breath, and offer my human presence, once the other person feels heard, they are genuinely interested in hearing me. It’s amazing!

There’s no better expert on listening than Carl Rogers, one of the founders of Humanistic Psychology, so I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes of his for inspiration:

“When someone really hears you without passing judgment on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mold you, it feels damn good. . . . When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to re-perceive my world in a new way and to go on. It is astonishing how elements which seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens. How confusions which seem irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard.” -Carl Rogers

My invitation to you this week is this: Next time you’re in a conflict with someone and wanting to be heard, see if you can practice listening in this empathic way. It takes a lot of courage, but I trust that once you start to see and feel how healing and transformative it is, you’ll want to keep practicing. Let me know how it goes—I’d love to hear from you!

Ali Miller

Ali Miller

Ali Miller, MFT has offices in San Francisco and Berkeley where she provides psychotherapy, couples counseling, and facilitates women’s groups called “Authentic Connection.” She is also available for consultation and trainings to therapists who want to incorporate NVC into their therapeutic work.

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  1. Traci Ruble, MFT on August 2, 2012 at 9:43 pm

    Ali, as I was posting your blog to the site, a) I felt so proud of your scholarship and savvy b) I was reminded of something and took away some important material for myself and c) felt inspired by your own “I do this too” joining in your tone. Thanks for making this skilled communication a community effort!

    • Ali Miller on August 2, 2012 at 11:50 pm

      Thanks, Traci! Yes, we’re definitely all in this together.
      I’d love to hear what you were reminded of/what important material you took for yourself if you’re open to sharing.