Hello everybody, welcome to episode 235 of Optimal Living Advice, the podcast where we take any questions you might have about the many struggles of life and get them answered for you here on the show. Today's question is from someone who wishes to be a better listener.
I’m your host, certified life coach Greg Audino reminding you before we begin that if you have a question you would like help with on the show, we welcome you to email it to us at advice AT oldpodcast.com
Our asker today has done just that; she’s sent in a question about how she can be a better listener for her boyfriend. Very good of her to be asking for help with this, she clearly is trying her best, but it seems that’s only pulling her further away from being the type of listener they’d both like her to be. Interesting. Why might that be? Well let’s see if we can figure it out and help her.
QUESTION: “My boyfriend and I get along really well. We have very few problems and have been going for 3 years strong through a lot of tough times for us both. But there’s one thing that comes up a lot and gets in the way of us, and that’s him telling me that I’m not a good listener. This had led to a few arguments because I try to be better at it and he always tells me I’m still too focused on myself than I am with him. But he tells me he sees me do this with my family, as well. I need to know once and for all what makes a good listener, please!”
The Art of Listening
Ok good question, asker. Definitely a question that more people should be asking than they actually are, so good on you for being devoted to get better at this and good on your boyfriend for speaking up. Thanks for sending this in.
So this is the problem that’s very easy to run into when it comes to listening. I don’t want you to stress about this too much or shame yourself because it’s a very natural instinct to focus on yourself whether or not you’re trying to listen to someone else.
As a matter of fact, it’s something we can subconsciously take a lot of pride in doing when we’re listening, because it’s easy to think that active listening means looking inward to put ourselves in the shoes of the person we’re listening to so that we can help relate or find solutions based on our own experiences.
But this is the distinction that many of us fail to make; the distinction between listening and problem solving, the line between which is quite blurry sometimes.
Listening vs. Problem Solving
If your intention is to help, but that help seems to go unappreciated because that’s not what the other person is actually looking for, it can get frustrating. Conflict can easily arise because you feel shamed for having tried your best to do what you thought was right, or what you thought they were actually asking for beneath the words they spoke.
Ironically this is a trap men tend to fall into, and women are on the other side of it. So your roles are a bit reversed here, but it’s ok, it happens all the time. Maybe you’re just a natural problem solver, and this would be another example of how something normally seen as beneficial can still have its downfalls.
Alas, listening is not about solving a problem necessarily. A lot of the time, people just want space to vent and be heard. Or they want to simply share an idea. Depends on the type of conversation.
But hey, maybe this isn’t you. Maybe I’m assuming this all wrong, and you know better than to try solving a problem when it isn’t asked for, yet your boyfriend still tells you that you’re making it about you. Should that be the case, what he may be referencing is your tendency to assuage his fears by way of talking about how things could be worse, with or without personal examples from your own life.
Minimizing Problems vs. Being Supportive
This one can be odd, because one might think that reminding someone of how much worse it could be would help to generate gratitude. I do this for myself a lot actually and I personally find it helpful. But when we’re seeking help from someone else, it’s not often what we want to hear.
In that scenario people are more likely to feel as though their feelings are being minimized and that they aren’t be heard that way. I actually put up a survey about this among my readers one time and found that, by a landslide, people saw this as minimizing rather than supporting.
But while helping to shift focus towards gratitude can be a useful tool, it should not be done by means of comparison, and that’s essentially what’s happening more often than not in a situation like this.
And when you do that, you’re creating a competition between people or between experiences, and good listeners don’t do that. And this is true of not only emotional conversations, but even casual conversations between friends.
Focusing on The Speaker's True Needs
Every single one of us has been here: you know when one friend announces a piece of news, and while the other responds, they can’t help but to mention the fact that they’ve already heard that, even if the response is entirely amicable. Or they might quietly one up it with a bigger piece of news. This is extremely minimal of course, but it shows how traces of competitiveness or trying to win can exist in tiny doses, and that urge can compound should the circumstances of the conversation be more dire.
You’ll have time to share your own concerns, your own cool pieces of news, your own means of finding ways to be grateful, your own ways of combatting anxiety. But when you’re listening, you should be listening and putting your focus on the true needs of the person across from you. Keeping this in mind, you can see how the harder you try, the more you can distance yourself from good listening.
How to Be a Better Listener: Conclusion
So ease up, because I sensed a little bit of franticness in your question, and that leads me to believe that your devotion to becoming a better listener has turned into you spinning your wheels a bit. But here’s the good news: your boyfriend will care mostly about you making the effort more than anything.
So in addition to what you’ve heard from me today, don’t be afraid to ask him. Ask him to cite ways in which you’ve seemed too focused on yourself and why, and just hear him. When he’s in the middle of saying something, ask him if he’d like potential solutions or for you to just listen and say nothing. This may seem funny or disruptive to a vulnerable moment, but given that this is a stressor between you two, it isn’t. Rather it’s a symbol of you putting him first and temporarily suspending your own urges to take control of the conversation. That’s what he wants and that’s what good listening is.
Big thanks to the asker for this one! Such a great question and as you can see, something that we can all probably apply to many of our relationships. I know I can.
I appreciate you being here as always, if you have any questions about this episode or one of your own that you’d like my help with, you know where to find me: advice AT oldpodcast.com
Otherwise, I’ll catch you all back here in a couple of days for the Friday show. Until then, everyone!