We all need people who will listen, who will give us what Dr. Carl Rogers referred to as minimal evaluative feedback (or Reflective Listening) and what was later named as Active Listening by Dr. Richard Farson. I doubt there is anything one can do that will build high quality relationships more rapidly or maintain them as solidly.
The big problem is that experiences, feelings, even thoughts cannot be communicated directly. I might, for instance, be sad but I can’t transmit my experience of sadness to you no matter how desperately I want to. My experiences stay inside and so do yours and everyone else’s. Let’s let the circle below represent a person in an emotional state of equilibrium. In other words, this person is experiencing no strong feelings.
However, if the person is frightened the illustration would look like this:
If I were this frightened person I might want to let you know what’s going on inside me and say something about being afraid but the words aren’t the experience. What I might say about my experiences, my thoughts and feelings, can be thought of as a code. A listener’s job is to decode. It looks something like this:
Occasionally the message is quite clear. I might say something like “That loud noise scared me” or “I’m tired and I want to sit down.” But for the most part it’s as if we all speak a kind of language that needs translation to be understood. The listener is the translator. So our diagram now might look like this:
Feedback is the only way I have to check on the accuracy of my decoding. If it matches the sender’s meaning he or she will say something like “right” or “uh, huh” and go right on. If it was off target the speaker will correct me. “No, what I meant was …” and go on. In a sense, I can’t miss. The process is self-correcting.
Enter any gathering place, a bar, restaurant, auditorium, theater lobby, a gym and you’re likely to come to the conclusion that everyone talks and talks, that we are all surrounded by talk. But is anyone listening? If you polled people in any of those well-known bars or other talking places I’m sure they’d respond positively. Yes, everyone listens. Well, don’t they? Sure. We listen to television and radio. We listen to friends, spouses, sons and daughters. We listen to music and plays. We listen to colleagues, employees, supervisors, customers and consultants. It seems like we listen to everybody.
But do we? Or is it just hearing?