Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: May 2010
We HSPs have a gift for listening and understanding. It makes us good students, teachers, managers, and parents, and very good friends. To help you use this gift even better, I thought it would be helpful for us to reflect on it together.
Listening is not only a gift, but a fundamental need. When we treasure someone dearly, it can seem like we have a real hunger to know all about them – their thoughts, feelings, or just what they did today. It also seems that everyone hungers to be fully understood by someone who cares about them. When needs like this are met, the whole world is happier. So here’s another time to appreciate what you have to offer the world.
Reviewing Your Skills
As you already know from experience (but perhaps intuitively, not consciously), meaningful listening includes doing a little more than being silent while the other talks. Let’s say you are listening to me. You want to reassure me that you are actually fully there, not thinking of anything else. Simply being quiet may not be enough with some people.
A good way to show you are present is through “active” or “reflective” listening, which you have probably heard about before. It involves restating now and then (not constantly) what I have said to be sure you have it right. Even better, you can focus on what I am feeling more than on the facts. If you are lucky, I might correct you, not necessarily because you had it wrong, but because, thanks to you, I have noticed something important I had not noticed until you said it back to me. Suppose I say, “I’m scared I’m going to make a huge mistake today.” You say, “Sounds like you’re sure frightened about it.” “Frightened? No, I guess not really. I’m just a little worried. I know I’m prepared.” Good for me to realize, and I might not have without your listening and “getting it wrong.”
Active listening can sound very mechanical and annoying if you are not careful. Be subtle, as only you can be. (Non-HSPs doing active listening often end up sounding unfeeling even though they follow the “rules” and mean well.) Imagine you are me talking to my son, trying to avoid him saying “Stop doing your therapy thing with me.”
For your listening to truly meet my needs, you also have to let me know that you accept what I am saying (and me), or at least my right to say it, even if you cannot accept in the sense of agreeing. Suppose I say, “I’m so stupid.” Rather than just politely disagreeing, you can say, “Okay. Something’s up today with you – you think you’re stupid. I can accept that. Although I can’t agree with you.”
Don’t forget to show you are listening with your body. Lean forward, or at least do not lean back with crossed arms or crossed legs. Smile your encouragement, nod, make eye contact, be warm – whatever is appropriate in the moment to show you care. You introverts: Don’t hoard your good feelings – you will never run out of them.
Get Out of the Way
HSPs’ biggest stumbling block in listening can be the many other resources we have to offer people, especially creative suggestions and insightful, thought provoking questions. Don’t let your intuition get ahead of things. Intuition is simply another way of knowing, which can be as wrong as knowing by reasoning or by observation. In listening, the best way of knowing is through unadulterated empathy.
In other words, resist the powerful urge to offer me a solution right away because you want to quickly put an end to my discomfort or your idea just seems so right, so obvious. Even if you were correct, there’d be a problem with it. When you offer a pretty good insight based on a little knowledge, you may obstruct my discovering what is exactly right for me. I will be distracted, at best, but I might agree too quickly, thinking you must know better than me or that you will feel bad if I don’t agree. Whereas my thinking something through with you, while you are just listening actively and caring about me, will help me come to an even better solution, one of my own, that I would not have come to without you. Your listening helps me focus and to feel that my problem, and I, deserve serious, extended attention.
The Golden Don’ts
Hence, even though you know how to listen well, keep in mind the reflective listening “don’ts” that you probably know already. I know I can’t hear them often enough.
- Don’t interrupt with a lot of questions. “What exactly are you scared of?” I’ll get to it or it isn’t that important.
- Don’t respond with your own experience. “Yeah, I get scared really easily too. Just the other day…” Now I have to listen to you.
- Don’t intellectualize. “People tend to get scared in these situations, probably because…” Now I have to think whether what you say is true.
- Don’t generalize. “Everyone gets scared sometimes.” No comfort, really.
- Don’t diagnose. “Seems like you have a problem with anxiety.” Now I really do.
- Don’t enforce positive thinking. “Just focus on how great you are and how well you are going to do.” Now I can feel guilty I can’t do that.
The above may all have their uses, but they are not part of skillful listening.
You won’t be perfect. Most of the time I think I am a pretty good therapist, but sometimes I find myself getting horribly in the way by using my highly sensitive intuition rather than my highly sensitive listening. I call it multiple-choicing. “How do you feel about that? I imagine you’re happy that you finally succeeded. Or worried you can’t do it again? Sad that it took this long?” Etcetera. A wise advisor told me that a good therapist leaves his or her “dominant function” (preference for thinking, feeling, intuition, or sensing) at the office door. Otherwise you will run circles around your client, over impressing both of you, when in fact the client is the one who needs to learn to use that function on his or her own. The same can be true with anyone wanting to listen, especially to non-HSPs.
Listening to Non-HSPs
Your attentive, non-interrupting listening can be especially helpful to non-HSPs. When I listen to my husband, who is not highly sensitive, he will often mention something casually that I know is significant. Often all I have to do is highlight it for him, “You’re telling me you’re really struggling with this decision.” He might say, “Yes I guess I am. I feel…” Often the issue opens up for him and he sees what matters to him about it. I, however, have to be sure not to “help” too much with my intuitions about him. We both are more satisfied when he is the one who finally brings to the surface the treasures of feeling and insight that were hidden in his depths.
Again, the trick with listening is to silence your other talents, and especially so with non-HSPs. They love it when they find themselves, and do not always love it when you do this for them. To some degree that requires forgetting about yourself entirely for awhile. Ordinarily a conversation proceeds most comfortably for both parties when one of you discloses something and then the other does. Both get to be heard – a little – and both get to share, a little. This can be fun and is often the best way when getting to know someone. But there are different rewards when one of you listens longer as the other goes deeper through your listening skills.
But You Don’t Always Have to Listen
Sometimes you may hear more than you wanted to hear. I had a rather disturbed relative (I guess most of us do), and one day I decided that instead of fending off his offensive comments, I would be more caring. Everyone has their reasons for behaving as they do, I told myself. He was not born this way. So I listened, reflecting now and then the feelings I was hearing along with the words. How rapidly I was deep into his painful world that had begun early in his childhood with the death of his mother. I should not have been surprised when I began to notice delusional thinking – events that could not possibly be true, voices telling him things. Suddenly he jumped up and left the room. It was too much for him, and would have become too much for me as well.
If he had not left the room, I would have steered the conversation to safety by telling him a long, boring story about myself in a tone that made it seem like I expected him to be fascinated. The listening “don’ts” are great for putting the brakes on things. Use them when you want to. I’m sure that even if I had tried to diagnose him, he would have just dismissed me. Frankly, I’d already tried it with him!
Finally, many HSPs tell me that they listen to others, but no one seems to listen to them. It’s not so surprising, is it? We sense that the other needs or wants that sort of attention and we can give it so easily. But if you start to resent it, hold back. Otherwise your listening could become a problem for the relationship, not a help. There must be balance.
Sometimes, however, we create the unbalance by consciously or unconsciously choosing to listen rather than open up. There can be many reasons for holding back, even when we think we want to receive some attentive listening for a change. The reasons are usually related to a lack of trust. Although, trust is more than simply a trait of a person (“he doesn’t trust anyone”). Trust is a characteristic of a relationship – some people you naturally trust more than others.
HSPs often prefer listening because it is less stimulating than opening up, especially if you worry about how the other will respond to your self-disclosures. I often stay quiet because I know the other does not listen well. If the relationship matters to me for other reasons, I try to relax, open up, and not have high expectations. I know that the two of us will become distant if I only listen and do not share now and then what’s really going on with me.
Above all, for whatever reason, you don’t always have to listen. It is a gift that you can give or not; it is not the other’s right to receive it from you. You might want to reflect on that….