Are You Really Listening?
A Helpful Look at Healthy Communication & How to Listen
Take a moment and think about conversation in your life.
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When was the last time you had a challenging conversation?
How did the conversation go? Focus in on how you listened. When we’re in conversations with others, we often hear what they’re saying but we don’t actually listen. We’re not actively receiving and interacting with what they’re talking about, we’re doing something else. Where was your mind in that conversation? How were you listening?
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Let’s break this down. How we usually show up in conversations and how we listen has many elements. In fact, we don’t actually listen, we P.R.E.A.C.H. This is the driving force behind many of our tough conversations. It makes a conflict go from bad to worse or makes what could have been a five-minute resolution turn into an hour long argument. So, let’s take a look at P.R.E.A.C.H. and the themes it represents:
Before I describe these different themes just take a look right away and see if any are alive for you. How often do you meet others ready to analyze the way they did something and tell them how you believe it should’ve been done? You are usually right, after all. You know what’s best and you definitely know whether something is good or right or wrong. Are you someone who hears something and reacts without taking time to reflect on what was actually being said? At some level, these are things we all do. It’s how we learned to be in conversations with each other. Sometimes it happens unconsciously without us even realizing that we’re doing it. And at one point in our lives, a lot of these things were helpful to our survival and coping.
Just because it’s what we know and what we’re used to doesn’t mean that it’s working.
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Let’s dive a little deeper. What is projection? This topic deserves its own entire article and course, but for the sake of this reading, I’ll keep it brief. When you go to a movie theater and watch colors and lights on the big screen, you know you’re watching a projection. Projection in our daily lives works similarly, but the projection is our own creation from our own minds, and most of the time we don’t know it’s a projection. We all have ideas, preferences, hurt, and needs that sometimes go unspoken. Additionally, everything that we see, hear, and experience is filtered through our personal perspectives before we encode and store that information in our brains. You can imagine that all these things—our beliefs, our preferences, our world views, even our hurt and unspoken needs, etc.—get projected onto our reality or the people we’re having conversations with. Just like the projector displays an image on a screen. Projection includes all of the elements of PREACH, and it also puts you at the center of how you're relating to the entire conversation—to your entire reality. If you can clarify what's coming specifically from you (like your anger, your hunger, your fear, your boundaries, your stories etc.) you can be clear on the feelings of the person you’re in conversation with, or with reality as it may be, separate from all of the things you are mapping onto that conversation. You will be interacting with present reality.
I'll share more about projection in future posts, and I invite you to research it as well, but for now let’s move on to reaction. Reaction is pretty straightforward. It’s our very initial response to stimuli. Our response to something before we even think about it. In conversation when you think someone is attacking you, saying something you think is wrong, saying something you’re taking personally, or when you’re uncomfortable or hurt by what’s being said, your reaction is the immediate response that you either have physically or express verbally (or nonverbally.) Can you think of times you’ve reacted to something in the past?
Next, we have evaluation. Another word for evaluation is judgment. This is when we assess the quality or value of something and make a judgment of it, like right or wrong, good or bad, mean, kind, truthful, perfect, etc. Marshall Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication even elaborates on evaluation to mean any language that is being used to describe something beyond objectively naming facts. For example, saying to yourself, “I shouldn’t ask—it’s a stupid question,” or to someone else “there’s something wrong with you.” Instead, when we’re not making evaluations and we are simply observing, we can see the situation clearly: It’s a stupid question vs. it’s a question I would like to ask. There’s something wrong with you vs. I don’t agree with what you did. In his book, Rosenberg writes:
“The first component of NVC entails the separation of observation from evaluation. When we combine observation with evaluation, others are apt to hear criticism and resist what we are saying. NVC is a process language that discourages static generalizations. Instead, observations are to be made specific to time and context, for example, ‘Hank Smith has not scored a goal in twenty games,’ rather than, ‘Hank Smith is a poor soccer player.’”
Analysis is like evaluation, but instead of making an assertion or judgment of the value of something, this has much more to do with the way you assess how someone is saying or doing something. So you might correct someone if you think they're using the wrong words. You might think about the many ways what they are saying is wrong and you are right because you know best. Analysis has to do with taking apart all the pieces of what someone is saying to you to the degree that you miss the actual communication happening. You may get so caught up in what you believe are the correct details that you aren’t able to understand this person’s experience and allow the conversation to move forward because you’re not actually hearing or listening to the other person’s sharing. You are interacting with what you think should have been said and not what's actually there.
Criticism takes analysis and evaluation one step further and brings them into the world of right and wrong. Criticism is both in the way you listen to someone and how you respond to them. The dictionary definition of criticism is the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes. So, in your perspective, you see faults, or mistakes, or something wrong either with the person speaking or what is being said, and then your response is to speak to that disapproval right away. Sometimes, when you feel criticized, you may lash out and act critically to others to protect those hurt parts of yourself. When have you felt criticized and how did you respond? Have you ever been critical as a response to feeling hurt?
Lastly, let’s take a look at history. History is a simple way of saying, “bringing in the past.” Some people have the tendency to harbor resentment. *Raises hand* this is one I can definitely relate to. Something happens, you feel hurt, but you stay quiet. It’s easier, safer, and more comfortable not to talk about something. After all, you don’t want to cause any more conflict. You don’t want to hurt them, so you hold onto it yourself. You’re used to taking care of things yourself, you’ve always been self-sufficient, so in this case—everything’s fine and you’ll just, “get over it.” And gosh, doesn’t it still hurt? So, fast forward—now tension is rising and you’re in a challenging conversation. All the feelings are boiling up and then there it is—this is just like the time in the past you got hurt. You express a response from that past hurt or bring up that past incident even though it is a distinct and different conflict than what’s coming up in the present. Suddenly history is being rewritten, and in the same way, because it’s getting blended with the present.
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So, there it is. A look at the way P.R.E.A.C.H.ing defines our conversations and actually blocks us from that healing, present, full-body-heart-soul listening that transforms conversations. Now, I have a challenge for you. Continue to focus on the elements of PREACH. Notice the way they show up in your daily life and in your conversations and just catch yourself. If you notice yourself reacting, consciously take a moment to pause. If you catch yourself making a judgment or evaluation, pause. Take a breath. Notice where you are and come back to the conversation. Continue to practice being present in the conversation.
In my Abundant Listening workshops we shift toward a new way of listening called SPACE. We come together to discover how to become a space for conversation that is healing and creative. For this workshop we'll be meeting in Boulder to release these old ways of listening and discover what it means to be Somatic, Present, Accepting, Clear, and Empathic.
The Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tzu says this about listening:
“The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of the understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind. Hence it demands the emptiness of all the faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens. There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.”