Listen to Understand

My husband was sharing how he overheard some coworkers talking – Dave was asking about the family situation of John.  Then Dave began to tell John just what he needed to do.  Meanwhile my husband knew a bit about John’s situation and saw how Dave wanted to give advice more than understand the choices John and his family had consciously made.

Families can be notorious for having the answers for each other.  The mom/dad/sibling who knows just what you need to do, and it would solve all your difficulties.  Except they really don’t. This doesn’t just happen in families, it happens with coworkers and friends, almost anywhere.  We all like to think we understand what the other person is dealing with and how to help them.

We share a common bond – we’re human and have similar life experiences.  We went to school.  We have a family.  We’ve felt unwell.  We’ve loved; we’ve lost.  We want to connect.  Yet with all our shared, similar experiences, the way we think and feel about those things can be dramatically different for each of us.  Our perspective about these events is based on more than the actual event – it’s colored by our prior life experiences, our own personality, the effect of that experience, and the list can go on and on.

Some people think that as a professional organizer I will come on in and know just what to do to fix their struggles.  I could try to do that – although I won’t.  It wouldn’t be sustainable that way, since it doesn’t take into account the individual and their situation.  The cause of their struggles could be any number of things and without understanding that – how much of a true solution could there possibly be?  All those variations based on their life need to be considered.

That doesn’t mean that I won’t present lots of ideas and share stories.  I will even discourage someone from tackling things in a certain way.  Yet, each person is truly an individual so that means they need to learn and experience things their way.  How many of us touching a hot stove at some point in life, despite being told not to?  Sometimes we need to learn things for ourselves, through direct experience.

What I try to do most is to listen.  Then I ask questions to follow up on what they’ve shared.  I listen to the language they use – are there lots of “shoulds” in what they are choosing?  What are those “shoulds” about?  How did this or that experience effect them?  My answers are not their answers, just as my experience is not their experience – the perspective we take away can be strictly our own.

This was illustrated a while back for me as I was working with one of my clients.  I wish I remembered the specific details more, though she was sharing an experience with me.  She and I have several things in common – I can relate to many things in her experience, and I almost jumped in with a comment about “yeah, I know how you feel…” Then I caught myself (it does take practice to counter the familiar response of jumping in with both answers and relating) and instead asked her how that felt.  Her response was not what I’d expected – despite our similarities.  That is exactly what stuck with me – by listening and asking more, I heard her and learned more about her experience.

One of the greatest gifts we can offer people is to listen to them.  Really listen to them.  Get curious – about yourself and others – and ask follow-up questions.  How did you decide on that?  What influenced this choice?  Deep down what we all want is to be heard – hoping to be understood.  Everyone could be understood – their choices came from their life and experiences.  Practice listening – it’s harder than you might think!

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