Three Keys to Listening Well

Listening is loving. It is food for the soul and nourishment for relationships. Being heard and understood deeply has a powerful effect, enabling us to feel safe, cared for, loved, and empowered. However, listening well can be difficult.  This is becoming even more of a challenge in today’s society where a million distractions lay at our fingertips. Below are three keys to listening well and improving the way we connect with others.

  1. Presence

“When people have been with me in the moment of my pain, I have little remembered what they have said. It is their presence I recall. The gift of presence is not that it takes away the pain, but that it enables one to bear it.” – Stephen Howard, The Heart and Soul of the Therapist

To be present with another human means to offer my full attention. By setting aside other distractions, I can offer you the gift of thoughtful focus on you, your words and your emotions.  There is a remarkable difference between true presence and distracted listening. For instance, most of us have been guilty of trying to squeeze in a text while listening to a friend. Perhaps you’ve been on the opposite end of this as well and have felt the sting of rejection when you realize your words are falling on deaf ears.  Being human means we make mistakes.  A part of improving how we listen means to take note of what often distracts us and to set aside specific time to intentionally be present with loved ones.

2. Empathy

“If we share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” –Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

To listen well involves empathy, or the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings of another.  Practicing empathy via listening means that rather than offer solutions or try and “fix”, silence and patience is instead offered.  In the precious space of silence, my friend is allowed to give name to her pain, confusion, or sadness. She has a chance to be heard and to tell her story. Now, rather than burden of hidden shame or pain, she feels joined and a bit less alone in her experience.

3. Boundaries

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” -Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

Boundaries are critical towards listening well because they enable individuals to offer presence & empathy. Practicing presence and empathy demands emotional energy.  Being human means we have limits to our capacity to give these resources.  Setting boundaries means we are in tune with how much we have to give and say yes when we feel capable and no when we do not.  The same people who often thrive in the areas of listening and compassion struggle to set boundaries because they want to give too much.  As Brené Brown mentions above, it is important that we care for and love ourselves enough by resisting the urge to merely please others and instead give when we feel truly able.

Presence, Empathy, and Boundaries set the tone for meaningful interactions.  By practicing these tenants, our relationships are given depth and life.

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Thank you for reading. Learn more about Lydia and her practice here.

The Power of Boundaries for the “Highly Sensitive”

Boundaries 2Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own & take responsibility for gives me freedom.” – Henry Cloud in the book, Boundaries: When to Say Yes & How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. [ A book I highly recommend. ]

If you are like me, the word boundary may feel a bit worn-out. Similar to being repeatedly told not to worry,  we have all been directed – likely countless times- that establishing boundaries with friends, family members, and co-workers is important. Most of us have experienced hearing more than a few of the warnings below, including…

“Don’t be a doormat and let them run all over you.”

“Stand up for yourself!”

“People will take advantage of you, if you let them.”

“If you give them an inch, they’ll try and take a mile.”

“Sometimes you just need to show tough love.”

I find myself cringing a bit when I read this list above. While the deeper message holds true [ setting boundaries is important in protecting ourselves ],  these statements sound a bit cynical, carrying almost a sense of  “us-versus-them” attitude.  For many of us – and especially those of us who tend towards being highly sensitive – these challenges can leave us feeling stuck in the fear of hurting those we love and care for. Perhaps the idea of defining boundaries feels like a daunting/near-impossible task as a result.  And this is exactly why I believe boundaries get a bad rap

Messages like the ones listed above may mistakenly teach us that boundaries represent “walls to keep the enemy out”, promoting an almost-aggressive and certainly defensive mindset.  However, as revealed by the portion of the book Boundaries quoted at the beginning, relational boundaries are not mean or a threat to others. Instead boundaries that encourage emotionally healthy living focus less on the actions of others and more on what your individual needs and capabilities are [ “knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for…”]. Valuable boundaries do not box us in, and neither do they entail rejecting the people in our lives. Rather, the opposite is true. Healthy boundaries mentally & emotionally set us free, allowing us to not merely survive but thrive personally & in connection with others.

“Boundaries are a part of self care. They are healthy, normal, & necessary.” ~Doreen Virtue

The Highly Sensitive (aka “Feelers”)

According to the Myers & Briggs Foundation, those with a preference for  Feeling (over Thinking) as a function for making decisions tend towards believing,  “I can make the best decisions by weighing what people care about and the points-of-view of persons involved in a situation. I am concerned with values and what is the best for the people involved. I like to do whatever will establish or maintain harmony.”

Establishing and sticking-to relational boundaries can present more of a challenge for the highly sensitive, or what the Myers & Briggs Foundation would define as “Feelers.” I can say this because, well, I am one.  Being sensitive to the needs, values, and emotions of those around us can be a beautiful gift and tremendous benefit; however, pitfalls include potentially loosing sight of “where I end and someone else begins” [ Boundaries ].  As a defining feature of “Feelers,” such sensitive persons are more inclined to allow the reactions of others to influence the choices they make. This presents problems when we notice the following tendencies developing:

  • Inability to say ‘No’ to requests, even when physical, emotional, & mental resources have been exhausted.
  • Sacrificing personal [ and reasonable ] goals out of a fear of the reactions of others.
  • Moving past healthy expressions of empathy and taking-on the responsibility of others’ decisions & problems.
  • Failing to structure personal ‘re-charging’ time into one’s day, in order to regain emotional & physical energy. [ And this involves more than merely time sleeping ].
  •  Refusing to notify close friends and family when in need of support & help.

And if you have fit one or most of these criteria at some point in your life [ perhaps even now ], you are not alone. When I consider a man or woman described by the bullet points above, I get an image of a water pitcher.  The pitcher of water continuously pours without stopping to re-fill.  After a period of time, it simply runs dry.  I don’t know about you, but when I am thirsty, I get cranky, frustrated, and even a bit resentful of those around me.  I may even expect others to magically know my pitcher is dry and understand how I am in need, without voicing my emptiness.  Over time, my anger & anxiety may build under the surface, erroding away my peace.  Yet who is in charge of re-filling my water pitcher?  Who is responsible for creating (or not creating) boundaries in my personal, relational, & professional life?

Boundaries = Advocating for My Needs & Respecting Yours:

How do boundaries set us free? If we establish wise boundaries in our lives – from how often we check our email, to the major decisions we make with our children and spouses – we can find ourselves leaving behind unneccesary and damaging feelings of guilt, frustration, & disappointment. And this is where I believe “Feelers” get stuck.  The highly sensitive may fear that advocating for needs appears selfish and is a sign of not caring for others. Yet, nothing is further from the truth. By taking care of myself, I enable my “water pitcher” to re-fill. I am my best for others when I am emotionally and physically healthy and strong. Putting in place boundaries is a form of self-care. It means we appreciate and respect who we are: human beings, rather than perfect beings.

So, how do you re-fill your heart, mind, and spirit? And how are you respecting & loving yourself by drawing lines and acknowledging your limits?

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Learn more about Lydia Minear, MA, LAPC’s Counseling practice @ East-West Psychotherapy Associates here.