Active listening is something I don’t think comes all that naturally to people, but is worth diving in and forcing yourself to get really good at.
You know when you find someone who is really good at it. They’re the sort of person you just wish you could be around more because of what it feels like when you’re with them: you feel like they couldn’t be more interested in the story you’re telling, you feel like the most important person in the room to them, and you feel like you never want the conversation to end.
It’s not necessarily that you connect over a specific experience and that they’ve “been in your shoes”. It’s rather that they relate with you through caring, not necessarily understanding.
Someone doesn’t need to understand what it’s like to have a parent pass away, they just need to care enough to hear about what it’s like for someone who did.
Someone doesn’t need to understand the experience of having a child with autism, they just need to care about supporting a friend that does.
Someone doesn’t need to understand what it’s like to live through a divorce, they just need to care enough to hear someone’s stories about what they’re going through.
For me, my difficulty lies in spending too much time in the middle of a conversation trying to come up with ways that I can connect with someone through my own experiences. While they’re talking, I’m trying to dig up a memory of a time when I had been through the same thing so I can convince them they can trust me and that they’re not alone. The motivation in that is genuine; my heart is truly in the right place.
The problem in that, however, is twofold: (1) I’m missing half of what they’re actually saying because I’m focusing on what I’m going to say to “connect” with them, and (2) the importance of their own experience becomes deflated when I eventually chime in because now I’m, essentially, one-upping them.
And, in my mind, there is nothing good that comes from one-upping someone who is trying to share something with you. One-upping is so toxic to a relationship, or even just a conversation with another person whether they’re someone you care deeply about or just someone you are chatting with in line at the market.
Instead, I’m working on spending time in every conversation listening to everything the other person has to say, asking questions to dig deeper into specifics of their experience, and trying to find out how whatever story they’re telling me has affected them and how it’s making them feel.
Because remember, in essence, the goal is not to know what someone is dealing with…it’s to care about what they’re dealing with. It’s not about sympathy and feeling bad for them, it’s about empathy and feeling for them. And, most importantly, it’s about them, not you.