I do it all day, and you do it all day. This is something we do all day, right? We are always listening. We understand the world around us through our perceptions and senses. Since day one of our existence we’re continuously trying to be aware of our environment: The colors, the sounds, and the smells. But the kind of listening I’m talking about is different. It is the one that is not a natural reflection in our human nature. It is really listening by choosing to engage and be fully immersed in doing it.
I’ve been practicing listening more consciously for the last three years since I started my Master’s Degree in Human Development. If you’re familiar with the subject, you will know listening is part of its core.
I started my first year, and in one of my first classes, I received an assignment. The task was to select and register a specific experience I had during that same session. I had to write about my perceptions (what I received from my senses), my thoughts as I understood my experience and the meaning I gave to it, the emotions I had, and the intentions and actions that came up. It was all based on Pfeiffer & Jones’ framework: the awareness wheel. So the instruction was that I had to do that activity after every session for the next two years. What did I get into?
I completed the homework for the first month doing that analysis after every session, and I hated it, but I had a scholarship to maintain, so I kept on being constant with due dates. I also tried to be very honest while doing it. Most of my sensations reflected I was tired and that I was desperate for the class to end so I could go home and have some rest.
Every three months, I had to analyze what I recorded so far. In my case, tiredness was the common theme. I, of course, blamed the unnecessary homework or heavy workload. I kept going like that for two years. Sometimes I enjoyed doing the homework because it became a non-judgmental space for me to express what I couldn’t during the sessions; it even helped me to connect with myself. Yet, I still thought it was unnecessary homework. I was frustrated not only because I had to do the assignment but also because I noticed other students seemed to like it. Why couldn’t I?
By the end of the two years: CRISIS. I didn’t know what to do, not even where to begin. During my first session in therapy, I had to listen: I was tired. No, I was exhausted. I learned a lot from that experience, but what I want to highlight here is that I had that information all along. I had data that said that for at least two years I was always tired, but I failed to listen.
Listening starts with me — Authenticity
There’s research that shows that we’re only capable of loving others as much as we love ourselves, and I have this theory that the same happens when it comes to the ability to listen.
Even if you think the conflict is with someone/something else (like homework in my case), stopping and asking yourself what is getting in the way? is a good start. In my case, I needed to really listen to my exhaustion situation (which I didn’t), and maybe that could’ve helped me have a better experience in class and with the homework. We have different tools we can use to listen to ourselves like journaling, scanning each part of our body through meditation, meditating, reflecting, and asking ourselves the hard questions.
In Human Development, we call this closeness to ourselves and our experience, authenticity.
We listen to what we’re ready to listen to — Unconditional positive regard
I have my every-session homework of two years as evidence that I knew all along I was tired. I knew it, but I didn’t understand at the time that it was becoming a complex problem for me. Those issues that look important but not urgent are the tricky ones. They are also the ones I recommend you pay close attention to.
The truth is I wasn’t ready to face what was behind that tiredness; that’s why I couldn’t fathom its significance. Unlike I did, be prepared to accept yourself on whichever issue you bring to your conscious mind. If you can create a judgment-free space within yourself to pay attention to the aspects of yourself that you dislike, you will be in a better position to see who you are as a whole. This could help increase your self-acceptance and self-love, understanding that you are a person with strengths and failures; you are a whole.
This is an attitude that we in Human Development call unconditional positive regard. Applying it to ourselves can help us to put it into practice with others and create healthier relationships with acceptance and respect.
Listening is powerful when we listen for meanings — Empathy
We can listen to a lot of things: words, screams, whispers; however, if we pay attention, we can also listen to what a behavior is telling us. Facial expressions, sensations in our body, thoughts, even silence can tell us something if we’re listening carefully enough, and that’s more powerful than words.
In my case, what I needed to listen to was my body. And I even had it on paper, but it wasn’t until I gave it a meaning that it became clear I needed to hear more closely. Look for what you are trying to tell you, not only the words you use, practice this in conversations with other people. I’ll give you an example: There’s a person who seems to be angry and you ask if they’re angry, they answer in a clearly angry way — — NO! The message and the way it is delivered are telling you different things; therefore, you might want to listen to the behavior instead: the tone, and expression.
The way something is expressed tells you more than the content of the message.
I relate this with empathy. Empathy in Human Development is about understanding the other’s perspective and feelings even if they can manifest it in words. It’s about being right there with the person as you abandon the need to change either the person or the emotion. It’s just being there for the other in a way the other person knows he/she is being understood.
The Human Development concepts I mentioned are way more complex from what I briefly described, and they are the fundamentals of the Person-Centered Approach, whose ultimate goal is to help unleash people’s development potential for the creation of healthier relationships.
I relate these concepts with my story and because of the crisis I had, I feel more connected to them. These are the principles that didn’t make my journey any easier but they showed me purpose and a better way, they are helping me to improve my relationship with myself and with others.
It’s nice for me to think that big and significant improvement can start with a small action such as listening.