Attentive listening is an important key in maintaining a deep and meaningful relationship. When a person feels listened to and understood, a deep trust is built which can lead to even deeper sharing. To be heard is a basic human need.
A woman came to see me in counseling with the following story. She and her husband were taking a walk shortly before a class they were both taking. They were walking in silence, enjoying the trees together, when the woman suddenly remembered a painful experience from childhood. Something about the autumn colors and smells brought her right back to an incident from her teenage years. She asked her husband if she could share it and he readily agreed. She began describing the scene and as she spoke a strong emotion began to build within her and she was just about to cry. At this point her husband noticed a pen on the ground and stopped to pick it up. He even cleaned it off to see if it was worthy of keeping. The woman turned around and saw her husband had stopped walking and was cleaning a pen. She immediately felt that he was not interested in what she was sharing and felt hurt and abandoned in her feelings. She expressed her hurt, which annoyed him as he felt he had only stopped for a second to pick up a pen. He felt he had been listening and was disturbed by the criticism. Distance and mistrust followed this incident. This melodrama is acted out in thousands of different ways between two people with partners changing positions in the basic struggle to be heard.
True listening requires 100% of our attention. Distractions, lack of attention, and lack of eye contact all give the message that you are not really listening. The person wanting to share will usually respond to a lack of interest either by becoming silent or speaking in superficial ways. Deep and meaningful sharing requires total listening.
The husband with the pen could have done several things to avoid the resulting distance by his momentary distraction. He could have simply shared that he wanted to continue hearing his wife speak, but was going to stop to pick up the pen. Keeping a flow of communication about your willingness to hear another helps that person to continue to share. The husband could have also asked himself if he really could listen deeply, considering the fact that they were walking, rather than sitting face to face.
The woman could have also avoided the resulting distance by realizing that her emotions were going deep into tears and that it might be better to stop and ask to be held, rather than continue walking.
Being heard and accepted is a deep need in all humans. Providing that space for another through attentive listening can be very satisfying and fulfilling. The flow of sharing and listening within a relationship leads to meaningful depth. Listen with your whole self and give your friend, child or partner the true gift of being heard.