Active listening, is an important skill for interacting with partners, children, coworkers, and friends. By engaging in active listening skills, we can often avoid painful conflict and reduce our own emotional response to distressing or surprising information. It also helps us calm the emotional responses of others. When we attune, pay attention, mirror and paraphrase, people feel understood and that calms the emotional centres of the brain and results in clearer thinking and interactions.
Active listening can help, whether you are struggling with your spouse after a long day of work, negotiating some chores or alone time, or struggling with an out-of-control child who seems hell-bent on bending something (it may sometimes feel like it’s your rules or spirit that they are trying to bend or break!). When implemented correctly these skills can defuse tense situations. In fact, these steps are used by hostage negotiators to diffuse situations by creating rapport, understanding, and calming the situation.
Just like any skill they are best practised regularly and before you enter a crisis situation. I suggest trying them out in daily life so that they become a habit and become your default response to triggering situations. A by-product of this method of communicating is that kids and spouses will feel closer and connected, which can reduce emotional lashing out (to be clear it doesn’t eliminate friction…just reduces it).
Here are the steps:
Paraphrasing is stating someones message back to them in your own words. This gives the reassurance that you get it. You understand them. By doing this you signal that you comprehend the other persons perspective. This is immediately disarming if
done with sincereness, and in a genuine manner. Using a calmer gentler tone conveys that you are understanding rather than challenging. For example, you child says: “I’m really sad when it rains because we can’t go outside and bike ride”. You can say: “you feel crushed when the weather isn’t cooperating and you can’t go outside”.
2. Emotion labelling
Emotional labelling helps someone in a distraught emotional state identify their own emotions. When we are in a distressed state, we often don't even realize the emotions we're experiencing. Here is a good place to use clarifying language. Frame your questions in an open manner such as:
"it sounds like you're experiencing”
“I bet thats tough”
“you seem as if”.
Naming and validating feelings serves to down regulate emotions, whereas dismissing or debating the factual reality of the emotions will often lead to push back. Neuroscience has shown, through brain imaging, that when we identify negative feelings, such as sadness, anger or disappointment, it diminishes their intensity. Verbal identification and statements can down regulate the amygdala: our brains fear centre that controls our fight-or-flight response
3. Offering minimal encouragements
Offering minimal encouragers sounds like saying “yeah” ,“uh uh”, “yep” and “ok” or just verbal sounds such as “mmmhmms” and other verbal non-word expressions. The goal is to follow along and allow the other person to know you are tracking what they are saying without interrupting. Think of it as adding along to the conversation.
Mirroring is repeating a part of a statement someone said verbatim. For example, your partner may say “You know everyday when I come home and the dishes aren’t done I’m super frustrated”. You can mirror by saying “You’re super frustrated.” That’s it that’s all. The goal of mirroring is to reflect that you are listening and that you picked up the important part of their statement. You honed in on it and used their language. With kids you might have something like “Mommy/Daddy I hate when you take my toys away” and you could reply “you hate when I take your toys away”.
5. Asking open ended questions
Asking open ended questions allows you to deepen the conversation as well as clarify the others perspective. Open ended questions need to allow for more possibilities than a yes or no. With a partner it may sound like: “Ok you’d like me to help out more with chores help me understand what you’re hoping for”. With your child it may be: “Ok so you don’t want to go outside right now. Tell me more about that.”
6. “I” messages
I messages are powerful because they explain your needs and don’t cause the person you are disagreeing with to go into defensiveness. When we explain our needs from a calm position elevated/distraught people are able to take in our information more effectively. Even if they are already in fight-or-flight which impacts our brains capability of taking in information, I messages can break through our brains defences. In fight-or-flight we are on high alert for attack so any “you” message will immediately cause defensive protective reactions which don’t generally lead to mutual understanding. With your partner an "I" statement may look like: “I’m really tired and frustrated after work today, I just need 10 minutes of quiet in my room and then I’m happy to take over with the kids”. With your kids it may sound like: “I would appreciate help in setting the table tonight.”
7. Allowing effective pauses/silence
Allowing effective pauses/silences sounds easier than it is. We have to fight our brains natural desire to fill the space with our perspective and thoughts. It can also feel "helpless" or "useless" as you aren't actively doing more than listening. And we always like to do more! Even when we shouldn't. The pauses are important for the other but they also allow your brain to stay calmer and in an understanding context rather than jumping to describing or judging.
If you are struggling with a partner, child, or just need support feel free to book an appointment online at https://app.outsmartemr.com/online-booking/2923/gaberoywright Or calling us at 250-362-5035.
Looking for more information on what happens in couples counselling? Check out this post