How to Listen Deeply with Compassionate Attunement
One of the cornerstones of communicating in a healthy and fulfilling relationship is being an active, engaged, and responsive listener. Yet, if you have ever been on the receiving end of someone who is listening to you in a disinterested, distracted, or aggressive manner, in those moments you may feel as though you’re not even in the conversation at all. It feels dismissive and like you don’t even exist.
By contrast, if you have been on the receiving end of someone who is deeply listening to you, then you may have had the experience of feeling fully seen, heard, and understood—an experience that not only can help you feel more connected to the person listening to you, it can also be one that can help you understand yourself better.
Similar to other skills, communication, meaning both speaking and listening, are skills that require repeated practice to achieve some level of mastery or expertise. What follows below are what I call six key attunement skills, adapted from Allen Ivey’s “microskills” approach to listening, an approach initially designed to teach counseling skills to novice practitioners. These skills help you become an empathic listener and can significantly enhance your ability to attune to the thoughts, feelings, and needs of another person.
What is heartful listening or compassionate attunement? It involves listening without bringing an agenda of your own to the conversation. You know you’re attuned when you accurately perceive the experience of the other person. As a listener, when you respond back to the speaker, you can show that you’ve made sense of what they’ve told you and understand what they’ve said, especially in terms of what it means to and for them.
Attend to the Other Person
When you attend to another person, simply look at him or her, make eye contact, and engage through facial expressions, head nods, gestures, or simple statements like “uh huh.” Lean in. Use body language that expresses interest, connection, and engagement. These behaviors show the other person that you are paying attention and closely following what is happening between you.
This might seem basic and natural, yet it is worth a reminder. When you pull your attention away by checking your phone, reading, watching TV, or when you fail to make any kind of response that shows you are fully present and actively listening, you are no longer attending to the other person. High-quality responses from you are also well timed (close to when someone spoke versus ignoring what you heard).
Ask Open-Ended Questions
Unlike questions that elicit yes-or-no answers, open-ended questions invite an infinite range of answers, deeper exploration, and more information about a given topic or experience.
Avoid asking “why” questions since they tend to invite defensive responses. Instead, start your questions with the words what and how; they lead to higher quality responses. Examples include:
“What do you need right now?”
“What can I do to make our relationship better?”
“What does that mean to you?”
“How does that affect you?”
“How did your friend’s response impact you?”
These types of questions require answers beyond a simple yes or no.
Summarize the Facts
Even though a person may be talking about his or her feelings, the focus here is to get clear on just the facts. Either paraphrase what was said or use the other person’s actual words to repeat or summarize the facts you were told.
Reflecting feelings means you respond to the feeling or feeling tone, whether it is directly stated or not. If it is an unpleasant feeling, never suggest a person “should” be feeling something else; similarly, do not tell them to “move on and just get over it.” Those responses are dismissive and tend to elicit speaker defensiveness, pushback, withdrawal, or shutdown.
To the degree that you can do it, the key is to respond to feelings first. It could be as simple as: “That sounds so frustrating.” Or: “I totally get why you’re disappointed.” Or, it could be more specific to the experience someone is going through, such as: “I know how sad it is to lose a pet. I know your cat, Moonbeam, meant the world to you.” Or: “Wow, that is so exciting that you get to travel to such cool places to speak on behalf of your company.”
If you sense what someone else is feeling, say what you observe, even it if seems like you are stating the obvious. Noticing someone’s pain can be the very act that helps relieve that pain. Your words invite calm because the person’s experience has been recognized whether or not you agree with him or her.
When a person feels “heard” or “felt” (meaning he or she or they feels understood and that you have a good sense of them), he or she experiences being noticed (I’m not alone and someone cares that I am here), validated (my experience is important to someone else, which helps me make it important to me), and deeply understood (which allows me to feel more connected with myself and connected with you). A sense of calm and vitality are generally the most immediate effects, often followed right away by more emotional closeness between the two people.
If you make efforts to problem solve without responding to the feelings first, someone may feel dismissed and then be less attentive and engaged in the conversation. Remember: feelings first. This approach is effective for every type of relationship, personal to professional.
Equally important is to notice positive feelings. Acknowledging risk-taking, efforts, and accomplishments with, for example, “Great job!” and “I’m excited for you” can make a big difference in someone’s life. Genuine appreciation and recognition have a very positive effect on the person and your relationship.
Learn to Allow Silence
Permit silence so that others get the chance to absorb what you’re saying, and vice versa. You don’t have to fill the space with talk nor rush in and rescue a conversation. Simply take your time.
Confrontation is a unique yet crucial expressive skill; it’s one that most people are reluctant to or find difficult to develop. Reasons for not confronting others usually sound like: “Oh, I could never say that,” “I have a really hard time speaking up,” “I don’t want to talk about stuff that upsets me,” or “I don’t want to hurt that person.”
Yet there will always be difficult conversations, unpleasant events, and challenging or upsetting situations whether it’s a tense Thanksgiving dinner with a difficult in-law, a request for a promotion or a raise, an encounter with someone who is hard to work with, or as anonymous as a customer service interaction.
You might have only experienced or witnessed heated relationship conflicts, the kind characterized by hurtful or explosive arguments or behavior, rather than the kind of confrontation that is empathic and empowers.
Confrontation that is empathic and empowering involves you simply stating (from a kind and well-intentioned place) what you observe or describing your experience to another. When you gently yet firmly state your observations, you remove the emotionally loaded charge from your words. You can describe what you observed about the speaker’s behavior, thoughts, or feelings, especially if you hear contradictions, discrepancies, or mixed messages in the conversation (e.g., “I hear how upset you are about the extra demands at work, and I also hear your reluctance to say anything to your boss.”).
When people feel safe and the conversation is truly collaborative and well-intentioned, the truth can be shared and heard. Truth vibrates and resonates within and, far from being unsettling, it’s actually calming. Consequently, people generally experience relief when the truth is expressed. Still, it involves a willingness for the speaker and listener to be fully present. It is in the telling and receiving of truth that each person becomes able to live more authentically and become more fully themselves.
Being a heartful listener deepens your connections with everyone, and your ability to listen and respond in this manner truly fosters healthy and emotionally fulfilling relationships—especially with the most important people in your life.
If you want to have high quality conversations, remember to respond to feelings first.
Content adapted for The Sunday Paper from 90 Seconds to a Life You Love: How to Master Your Difficult Feelings and Cultivate Lasting Confidence, Resilience and Authenticity, (New York: Little Brown Spark, 2019) by Joan I Rosenberg, PhD.