So now you know: If you want to cultivate closeness, you need to focus on feelings. Once you learn this, the most natural first impulse is to share your feelings. But you would do better to first try to help them share their feelings. Think listen first. Try to discover their feelings as your first action.
Listening well means more than just keeping your mouth shut. Imagine yourself a spy trying to wheedle information out of someone, except in this case you're trying to get people to reveal feelings rather than the enemy's secret plans. Imagine yourself doing that and you realize how active listening is.
Depending on how you do it, the way you listen can make people open up to you, or it can make them shut down. You can make them feel safe, or you can make them feel wrong. Listening is very powerful.
For example, Vic wanted to cultivate closeness with his teenage son, Tony. Over dinner one night, Vic said, "So what's going on at school these days?"
"Not much," Tony said casually, "I don't really like most of my classes. Except maybe P.E. The coach is really cool. He lets us do pretty much whatever we want."
Right here, Vic had the opportunity to help Tony open up. Or the opportunity to teach and control and be right. Vic, like most parents, has a natural intention to mold his child, to improve him. Fine and dandy. That's part of his job as a father. But if in this conversation he wants to cultivate closeness, listening is what's called for.
But no matter how hard you try, you will occasionally become self-righteous when you're talking to someone. When it happens, all is not lost. Remind yourself your intention is to cultivate closeness not convert the world to your opinions, and admit your mistake openly and apologize.
A key to listening well is asking questions without a sense of interrogation, but with curiosity and love and real interest. And good listening is not just going through the motions of good listening. It is really taking an interest in the other person and being open to who they are. If you want to improve your listening, you don't just change your behavior. Something must change inside you. You need to think about why you want to know this person, why you want to cultivate closeness, and why good listening is such an important thing to do. By thinking about these things, you will have your mind and heart in the right place. Then you can genuinely listen.
The following are a few guidelines to help point the way.
LISTEN WITHOUT JUDGMENT
I was talking to a good friend of mine the other day and he made the comment that Americans are pushy and arrogant. I know this is a widely-accepted modern American viewpoint. But I pointed out that other cultures can be more pushy than Americans. I deal with a lot of people from all over the world, and Americans, by and large, are very polite. Anyway, I said, "For example, Koreans are more pushy than Americans in my experience."
"Watch the racial stereotypes," he snapped.
I took offense. I wasn't talking about race, I was talking about culture. And I don't even judge "pushy" as necessarily wrong. But that's all in the realm of right and wrong and opinions and interpretations. What if I was listening for feelings? What would I hear? How about these:
a) I argued with him first; he might be getting revenge for feeling caught stereotyping Americans.
b) He wants his kids to be good citizens and political correctness is therefore important to him.
c) He wants me to succeed with others and perhaps he was afraid I might offend people if I throw around racial stereotypes.
These are just guesses, and I could have asked him about any of them and our conversation would have brought us closer. But these kinds of questions would only occur to me if I was listening for feelings.
NO WRONG FEELINGS
Let them feel whatever they feel. That's a good rule. If someone tells you what he feels, never try to talk him out of it — that would be a fundamental violation of his right to self-honesty. This is an important principle for psychological health and personal integrity: Whatever you feel is what you feel. There are no "wrong" feelings. As soon as some feelings are off limits, closeness is prevented because it becomes more difficult to disclose certain feelings and divulging feelings is the key to closeness.
I'll give you a couple of examples of how this feels. Let's say you feel guilty because a clerk at a store earlier in the day gave you too much change. It's not worth getting in the car and going back to the store to return it. But you feel bad about it anyway. So you tell someone and he says, "You shouldn't feel bad about that."
Or let's say you were going to meet a friend at the theater. You're going to watch a movie together. But he's late. This is the third time you've done this and all three times you've missed the beginning of the movie. When he shows up, you say, "I missed the beginning of the movie again." You're feeling kind of angry.
He replies, "Now don't get mad."
Can you see how this violates something important? When you feel an emotion, you feel that emotion. You cannot not feel an emotion — emotions don't work that way. To try to say you shouldn't feel something you feel is to say you must not be what you are, think what you're thinking, believe what you're believing, and perceive the world the way you're perceiving it. The statement denies everything about you.
Listening well requires motivation. It is not a passive activity. You need persistence and sustained effort. Really try to be there paying attention and being interested and caring and trying to get what they're saying. This takes effort. Keep yourself motivated by reminding yourself how important — and how deep — this human need is and what a difference it makes to you when you are truly heard. And the profound health benefits you will gain. And what a great gift you are giving to the other.
Keep learning about it: Read Love and Survival. Read Connect by Edward Hallowell. Read The Relationship Cure by John Gottman. Read Self-Help Stuff That Works. Motivation is especially important when you are changing ingrained habits. Your motivation needs to be sustained over time. And you can deliberately increase and sustain your motivation with good input.
ALONE NO MORE
To listen well, you don't have to be interested in what she's saying. I mean, you don't have to be interested in cars if she is talking about cars. You only need to be interested in her. That expresses itself as interest in her feelings about what she is saying. She has something important and she is alone with it. Sharing it with you makes her no longer alone. Let her speak. Really get it.
"How can I help this person no longer be alone with this?" That's the motivation to have, rather than, "What can I get out of this?" or "How can I seem interested so she'll like me?" or, "I'm not really interested in cars so I'm bored."
The communication is not really about information. It's someone sharing something with you to connect with you. It doesn't even matter if you've heard it before. That's not the point. It is the revealing of feelings that matters, not the content.
Just being heard is valuable. Just the fact that someone is there for you — when they have no advice or "real" way to help you, it is still valuable that they listen.
In his Autobiography, Bertrand Russell wrote, "In human relations one should penetrate to the core of loneliness in each person and speak to that."
A FRIEND INDEED
It can help a friend to listen to him talk when he's having troubles. But being the listener isn't easy, and as you know, not everything you say or do to help a person really helps. Brant Burleson, a researcher at Purdue University, set up some experiments to find out just what does work, and what doesn't. What he discovered may surprise you.
You don't have to offer advice. In fact, you probably shouldn't, according to Burleson's studies.
When someone is unloading his troubles, most of the things we most naturally want to do to help him will not help him. For example, it doesn't help much to tell your friend about similar troubles you've had, or to try to help him look on the bright side, or to try to change the subject. What actually helps the listener is surprisingly simple and easy: Encourage your friend to describe his trouble in great detail. And make sure you include, as part of that detail, descriptions of your friend's feelings.
That's it. Most people can pretty much figure out what they ought to do once they think about it a little bit, and that's exactly what you're allowing him to do: Think.
By not giving your friend advice or trying to help him see the silver lining, by not cluttering his mind with your own similar experiences, and by getting him to describe his feelings and the problem in detail, you're allowing him to clarify the situation for himself.
It's easier to think by speaking aloud than it is to try to think to yourself, especially when you're upset, but that's true only if your listener is allowing you to speak freely.
Get your friend to describe his problem and his feelings in detail. Although it may seem you're hardly doing anything, you're allowing him to do what he needs most when times are tough: To confide in a friend.
HOW TO LISTEN
Listening completely is not done with silence. Yes, while the other is talking, you need to be silent to listen. But at some point the person will stop. Is there something missing? Is there something more you want to know? Is there a gap in your understanding? Ask a question that allows the other person to make you understand even more about the situation and about their feelings.
Ask questions, not in a lawyer-grilling-a-defendant sort of way, but in a share-yourself-with-me way. Make yourself understand that it is in both of your best interests if you understand the person's feelings. And then your sincere desire to understand will draw the other person out. Your honest wish to know will bring questions into your mind which you can then ask.
And let her know you understand. The look on your face isn't enough. Nonverbal communication is not always clear. You must say you understand, and not just by saying, "I understand," although that is at least something. Use the phrase, "It must have been..." to show that you understand — or give the person an opportunity to straighten you out if you don't understand.
"It must have been frustrating to have so many things go wrong at once."
"It must have been infuriating to see me do it again."
There's nothing sacred about the words "it must have been..." Any words that do the same job will do: "I'll bet you were..." "You must have felt..." "Did it seem dangerous?" "That had to make you mad." You're guessing what she's feeling — but you're guessing out loud, which means that if you guessed right, she knows her feelings went across the space between you and you know how she feels. And if your guess is wrong, she can correct you. She also gets a better idea of how much is getting across. When a person feel understood, something good happens. There's a relief or a completion, or something. But whatever it is, it is good and it is healthy.
Studies have shown that confiding in someone, especially about troubling things, is much healthier than keeping it to oneself. You do the person a real, measurable service to listen and let them know you understand.
Listening is powerful. But it isn't really natural. It's natural to interrupt. It's natural to talk about yourself. Every child does this until they are either trained to do otherwise by adults, or figure out it doesn't work. But most of us, even as adults, are still not very good at listening. With practice and intention, you can become good.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.