In the last column in this series you read about making amends. The biggest, and perhaps most difficult part of that is learning to listen. It is hard enough as it is, but add to that your emotions and frustrations and it can seem almost impossible not to interrupt and say what you think or feel.
If you can truly listen to others with an open mind and without judgment or the desire to jump in and speak, you can begin to understand them. The reason this works is because good listening leads to empathy, and once you can get to that place, the entire dynamic of the relationship changes.
In most of our challenging relationships, we feel bruised and put ourselves on the defensive. We may want to make things better, but we assume the other person is "impossible." We may have tried to talk in the past, but to no avail, so we give up, feel trapped and want to protect ourselves.
More often than not, however, it is possible to improve the relationship. If you're not sure about that, just think of the fact that this person probably has at least some good relationships in his life. Like you, he is capable of getting along with people.
So where do you start? By letting down your defenses, and truly trying to understand the other person's perspective. Ask him to sit down with you, and explain how he sees the problem or the relationship. Then, make sure you do a few important things:
• Be present. Listening requires focus and an emptying of the mind. The more focused you are, the easier the process will be. Being present also means you keep your defenses down. If you catch yourself preparing a rebuttal in your mind, stop. Think of yourself as a third party mediator, simply trying to understand this person's point of view. It doesn't really matter whether or not you agree with what he is saying. You don't have to agree to understand.
• Ask questions. If you aren't clear about what the person is saying, ask what they mean. Don't be afraid to probe and ask for examples. If he says you are overbearing, ask him to give a few recent situations in which he perceived you that way.
• Don't take the bait. If the relationship is at all damaged, this person is probably harboring some anger or resentment. He may hit below the belt. If that's the case, resist the urge to respond or react. If a comment is extremely offensive, ask him to say it differently. Remind yourself that these kinds of statements are simply an illustration of the emotion he feels. In other words, it's about him; not you.
• Open body language: Eighty-five to 90 percent of our communication is non-verbal. Even if you don't interrupt in a conversation, your body language will give away your frustration and other emotions. When you are listening, it is important to face the person, uncross your arms, and look at them. The goal is to have a neutral stance and facial expression.
• Summarize or Paraphrase: When the person is finished talking, make sure you are both clear on what you understand. The easiest way to do this is to give him the bird's eye-view by saying something like, "So it sounds like there are three major problems...." This helps you both solidify the problem, and take the next step toward solutions.
If this seems like too much work, remember the old adage: People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. The best way to get people to listen to you is to listen to them first. Pick someone in your life and give it a shot. Chances are the results you get will make you want to listen a lot more.
Elisa Levy conducts seminars on conflict resolution and anger management. For more information, contact her at 305-296-5437 or visit http://www.elisalevy.com.