Effective listening


During abuse, listening was pointless because we couldn't trust what was said: "you're cute" meant "I'm going to molest you," "you're stupid" meant "I'm in a bad mood," "come over here" meant "I'm going to beat you up," etc. We learned to ignore the words and rely on subtle cues: facial expressions, tone of voice, even speed of blinking. Outside of abuse, however, people speak their mind, so the best way to understand someone is to listen to - and, more importantly, hear - what they are saying. It's a cornerstone of healthy relationships: nobody wants to talk to someone who won't hear them. Lost friendships, strained relationships with family, even employment problems - can all be caused by simply not hearing what people are saying to us. Changing old habits takes persistence, determination, and practice, but it's well worth the effort.

Choose what you listen to

Your time and nerves are limited, so you can't give unlimited attention to everyone who wants it. It's normal and healthy to pick and choose, and to say straight if you can't or don't want to listen to me at the moment (or ever). For example, my father liked to update me on his sex life - it was a huge relief to discover that I can just tell him I don't want to know these things. You can also ask me to postpone the conversation if you're busy right now but would be willing to hear me later, or ask me to get to the point if I'm taking too much of your time. It's good to be candid about these things, if only because it allows me to trust that when you agree to listen - you actually are interested, you would have said "no" otherwise.


If you chose to listen to me - do give it your undivided attention, put the distractions aside. Often people are half listening, half thinking about something else, having side conversations, playing computer games, checking their phones, etc, nodding occasionally and then admitting that they were distracted and have no idea what I'm talking about. That's not listening, that's allowing me to vent. I'm talking because I want to be understood, by you, and I'll be expecting a response in the end, otherwise it's a waste of both your and my time, I might as well use a journal.

Don't argue yet

When people are engaged in a conflict, they often assume that they have heard what their opponent is saying many times before, so, rather than paying attention, they focus on how they are going to respond to win the argument. The point of listening is to gather new information and/or to understand a different perspective. You don't have to agree with me, at this point it doesn't matter if I'm right or wrong, what matters is that you understand what I'm saying. So stop and hear me out, don't interrupt with counter arguments. You'll have a chance to respond and I'll listen to you just as much as you're listening to me now.

Hear what's being said

Our personal filters, assumptions, judgments, and beliefs can distort what we hear. Putting yourself in my shoes can help with empathy and with troubleshooting, but that should come after listening, not during. You aren't me, I'm another person, and we might feel differently about the same situation. For example, based on what I told you about my boss you might feel that he's a jerk - but that's your opinion, not mine; I might actually be quite happy with him. Focus on what I'm actually saying, not on how you would feel in my place.

Ask questions

If you aren't following my train of thought, or if my story makes no sense - don't be afraid to ask clarifying questions. Most of the "boring/pointless" conversations are simply incomplete, the person speaking didn't mention half of the relevant information. For example, if I'm telling you that I'm broke and yet just bought myself another pair of shoes - it makes no sense, just ask me how does it reconcile, did I use a gift card, do I have a problem with compulsive shopping, what's the deal here? It needs to make sense in the end, that's how you know if you heard me right.

Reflect what you heard

If I'm still talking, it means that I believe you aren't hearing me, are still missing my point, so I'm trying to communicate it to you. If you believe you already got it - summarize it for me, see if you got it right or there's something you're still missing. This lets me know where we are with this conversation, and gives me a chance to clarify. Simply nodding and saying "uh-huh" isn't good enough, I need to see that you really do understand what I'm saying to you.

Share your position

Once you've heard me, I'm expecting a response to what I said. That's the reason I was talking in the first place: I wanted you to understand where I'm standing and to share your perspective on it. Now is the time to put yourself in my shoes, to brainstorm solutions, or to respond with counter arguments if you disagree. Be candid, open, and honest - I do want to hear your opinion, I wouldn't be talking to you otherwise, and will feel very frustrated if this whole conversation results in nothing, as if I were talking to a wall.

Even if it's an argument

A lot of abuse survivors freeze during arguments, view them as attacks, and feel like they need to basically wait till I exhaust myself. That's not how conflicts between healthy people work. I'm not unloading on you just to let off steam or to make you feel bad. I'm trying to solve a problem, and need your input in order to proceed. For example, a friend recently gave my email address to someone without asking me first. I don't want it to happen again, so I told him I didn't like it. He responded that he didn't mean to hurt me, he only shared my email because he thought it would be a good idea. That's what I thought, but I'm still not clear on whether the problem is solved or not. I'm just as eager to move on as he is, but I need a response: that he now understands it was a bad idea and won't do it again, or that he still feels it was a good idea and will continue sharing my email with people I don't know, or that he isn't sure when is it OK to share my email and will ask before doing it next time, or whatever else the plan is. That's all I'm looking for, the argument will be over as soon as he tells me where we're standing.