Why is Listening So Hard?

Listening Skills

I was sitting across a table listening to Laura and Ben talk about their struggling marriage. Laura, the wife, talked about how she felt angry and dismissed over her husband’s behavior. She didn’t know how he could do such a thing. The more she spoke, but the uncomfortable I became.

Why was I uncomfortable? Because listening is hard.

While Laura spoke, I could see that she had so many thoughts and emotions inside of her. All of those thoughts and feelings had been bottled up, and she wanted to get them out. As she spoke, she began to feel a little better. I was feeling worse.

When we listen, we take on the speaker’s pain for a short time. How we react determines whether we help the person or hurt the person.

Thought Orientated or Emotion Orientated

People tend to have either a thought or an emotion orientation. I have been attending a grief group to help me process my grief over my parent’s death. I expressed to the group how I have a difficult time accessing the emotions of sadness and anger. One woman responded and described how she tends to get lost in her feelings. She has a difficult time separating out her thoughts. She and I are on different ends of the spectrum. I have a thought orientation, and she has an emotion orientation.

Like me, those with thought orientations tend to dismiss emotions and have a logical, left-brain approach to life. As a speaker, I have excellent reasons for my thoughts. However, I have difficulty recognizing my emotions.

Other people tend to have an emotion orientation. They will react to their own emotions and may struggle to understand their thoughts and reasons.

Fix the Thought

As listeners, thought orientated people may become uncomfortable with the emotions the speaker is expressing. This is what was happening to me when I listened to Laura.

Thought orientated people may focus on solving the problem rather than helping the speaker to express their emotions. As a listener, when they are uncomfortable with emotions, they may ignore or dismiss the feelings. They may change the subject. While their reaction may be well-intentioned, it may not be what the speaker needs.

One time I was teaching a class for marriage mentors. We had just gone over poor behaviors, such as giving advice too quickly. We broke into small groups to do a role-play to mentor a couple with problems. I watched one new mentor quickly jump into problem-solving mode. They were quick to offer solutions to their problem. Often, this can cause the speaker to feel dismissed or invalidated.

Fix the Emotion

Emotion orientated people may rush to offer solace when they see someone in pain. This is in reaction to their own discomfort. The comfort could involve offering a hug or reaching out and touching someone’s hand.

One time, I was sitting in a small group to coach a new leader. A woman started to cry, and the new leader came over and starting to hug her. The woman stiffened up to the touch of the small group leader. The woman was not comfortable being touched. After the meeting, I spoke with the new leader. The new leader felt very uncomfortable with the tears. Her desire to comfort the person with touch was in reaction to her own discomfort.

What’s the Best Reaction?

In general, people need to express their emotions. Thought orientated people may have a difficult time connecting with their emotion. However, the speaker may need to express their feelings. The best thing you can do is empathize and move toward their emotion.

I like to think of myself as a temporary container. The speaker expresses their hurt and emotions, and I hold their pain for a while. I work to move toward their feeling. Often, the listener will feel ashamed of these emotions. If you pull back, that could communicate that their feelings are wrong or not acceptable. As you move toward their feeling, the speaker feels love and acceptance.

Listening is Hard

Whether you are listening as a mentor or a spouse, this dynamic is in play. Spouses often have a difficult time connecting with the emotions of their partner. Because of their own discomfort, they may try to fix the emotion or fix the thought, rather than listening and empathizing.

Showing empathy is a skill that can be developed. The listener can become more aware of their own internal reactions and not let their own reactions dismiss or ignore their partner’s feelings.

Tips for Marriage Mentors

  • First, listen and empathize – You really can’t go wrong by listening and empathizing. Yes, there are times when you can offer insight or advice, but be sure to empathize first.
  • Be aware of what is happening inside you – Often, we react to people because of our own discomfort. So, we try to stop their hurt or jump to fixing a problem.
  • Make it about them, not you — Our desire is to help other couples. The best thing we can do is empathize and understand their perspective. It is about them. It’s not about you.