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Listening Skills: The Most Powerful Relationship Helping Tool

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Friends smiling Listening Skills—My first job after graduate school was as a therapist for severely socially and emotionally disturbed (SED) adolescents living in a group setting. I was excited to learn everything I would need to know for the position from the woman who interviewed and hired me, as she had a reputation as a brilliant clinician. On my first day of work, however, I learned that she had accepted a new position and would be leaving the organization within two weeks. My opportunity to be mentored by her was suddenly reduced to a week of training and a few days of farewell celebrations.

Nonetheless, I held on to every word she said in those few days and ‘til this day, keep a copy of this poem that she left for me. This poem has served as one of the most important foundations of my professional work and my parenting life. What do you think?

Please Listen, Author Unknown

When I ask you to listen to me
and you start giving me advice,
you have not done what I asked.

When I ask you to listen to me
and you begin to tell me why I shouldn't feel that way,
you are trampling on my feelings.

When I ask you to listen to me
and you feel you have to do something
to solve my problem,
you have failed me, strange as that may seem.

Listen!
All I ask is that you listen.
Don't talk or do - just hear me.
Advice is cheap - 20 cents will get you both
Dear Abby and Billy Graham in the same newspaper.
And I can do for myself; I am not helpless.
Maybe discouraged and faltering, but not helpless.

When you do something for me that I can
and need to do for myself,
you contribute to my fear and inadequacy.
But when you accept as a simple fact
that I feel what I feel, no matter how irrational,
then I can stop trying to convince you
and get about this business of understanding
what's behind this irrational feeling.
And when that's clear, the answers are obvious
and I don't need advice.
Irrational feelings make sense
when we understand what's behind them.

Perhaps that's why prayer works - sometimes -
for some people, because God is mute.
and he doesn't give advice or try to fix things.
God just listens and lets you work it out for yourself.

So please listen, and just hear me.
And if you want to talk,
wait a minute for your turn,
and I will listen to you.

My would-be-mentor advised me that providing an experience of feeling heard and understood would be far more powerful for the adolescents and families I treated than any graduate school answers or complex solutions that I could generate. She did not discount my professional training, but she did assure me that when it came to being there—really being there for someone else—good listening would be my most powerful helping skill.

How right she was! Her advice has carried me through all sorts of situations in the last decade, not just with clients, but in my personal relationships with friends and loved ones and as a parent to two children. Though there is much that we all can offer when it comes to insights, reassurance, and spoken encouragement, there is almost always even more that we can give simply by being present and listening without judgment.

How do you practice and improve your listening skills? How do you lend an ear to improve relationships with family and friends?

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Signe Whitson is the Chief Operating Officer and a Master Trainer for the Life Space Crisis Intervention (LSCI) Institute, a nationally recognized professional certification and training program.   She is a Features Editor for the Reclaiming Children and Youth Journal and member of McGraw-Hill’s Academic Advisory Board.  Signe also partners with My Baby Clothes and provides her advice to help the parenting community. Stop by and check out the new line of summer baby clothes, the beautiful tutus and precious baby headbands.

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