“I feel as if I wasn’t heard” is a phrase that counsellors often hear from people who are unburdening the sorrows of their past. It is invariably said with sadness and regret and usually describes feelings experienced during childhood or at times of particular stress.
Perhaps all of us have had the experience of not being really heard. We know what it means; we know how it can feel. At least those difficulties which we have experienced, as we reflect on them, can help us be more attentive to others as we listen to them.
There is a difference between hearing and listening. Take, for example, the story of a boy entering puberty and starting high school who was embarrassed because he was the only kid in the class wearing unfashionable clothes. He told his parents he wanted to wear clothes like his friends’, but they responded by saying there was nothing wrong with what he had. Or the situation of a man who wants to discuss some concerns about his sexual relationship only to have his wife reassure him that nothing is wrong and that he is just overworked. In yet another example, a creative woman recalled how she loved to daydream and spend time alone when she was a child, but her parents kept telling her she was becoming antisocial and insisted she go out more.
The end result of such experiences is that these people consider themselves misunderstood and invalidated and develop feelings of low self-esteem and worthlessness.
In most situations, people hear what is being said, but do not listen. This confines the communication to a purely factual level. What is not being listened to is the feelings embedded in the words – the message about the message. But listening to the hidden subtext, sometimes referred to as listening with the third ear, can be difficult and requires that we take time and be receptive: attributes that are sometimes difficult to find in our manic and fact-obsessed world.
When someone tells us something that’s important to them, we, whether we choose to or not, pick up their feelings and this can make us anxious, perhaps unconsciously reminding us of similar issues that we don’t want to face. One way of dealing with this is to simply pretend not to hear what has been said and go off on some irrelevant tangent, thereby keeping the conversation at a superficial level. A more subtle way is to hear but not listen, and to respond by offering all manner of advice. This advice does not originate out of concern for the wellbeing of the other person, but out of anxiety.
Yet when someone is “only trying to help” in giving advice, it’s often difficult to tell them that they’re not really listening! Such a comment in reply could cause offence.
Instead of reacting against the feelings we might pick up as we listen to people, it usually is much more respectful and helpful to allow oneself to identify with the feelings, to experience the same kind of feeling ourselves, to be in solidarity with that person at the level of emotion, while at the same time retaining a clarity of mind that should be easier for us as we are not involved in the consequences of the emotions. Without telling the other person what to do, we can speak with a clearer vision. Oftentimes the other person can benefit from the clarity we express in reflecting his/her story and then come to see a positive way forward in the situation.
When being told something, it is worth pondering whether not rushing into giving advice might, in fact, be the most fitting response. Then we may find ourselves actually listening and not just hearing.