Silence is Telling

When Being Heard Requires Listening

By Autumn Irons

I recently met with a friend who has been married for a little over a year. During our conversation, I asked her how she felt her marriage was going, if she feels like she has adapted well to this big life change. As an unmarried young adult myself, I was curious how my friend handled the transition from singlehood to being a married woman. She mentioned a few core values that she and her husband shared that helped strengthen their relationship, such as their common faith, honest communication, and respect for one another. We had a discussion then about what is healthy and necessary in relationships and what is not. One of the things we touched on was the topic of listening.

Listening to someone and having them listen to you in return seems, by all accounts, like an extremely easy and natural process. Of course you should listen to someone if they are speaking to you, particularly if they are being open and vulnerable about a sensitive issue.  Surprisingly, however, for many of us, we find ourselves needing guidance when it comes to truly listening to someone.  

At its foundation, when one thinks of what it means to listen to another, we typically understand this to be a dialogue in which person A speaks and then person B, in response to what A has shared, follows with a reply. This is not incorrect—sometimes person A will ask a question or seek advice explicitly so person B may be called upon to verbally respond. Yet there is another means of listening that many do not take the time to appreciate or implement: silence.  

To be still, hold your tongue, and allow the person you are with to speak as freely as possible. It seems so simple yet how many of us, when engaged in a conversation with a friend, family member, or colleague, are not actually fully present while they are speaking because we are too busy formulating our next response?

This is quite a natural phenomenon, as is the “Fix-It” mentality that most of us take up when presented with a problem. As the elder sibling, if I am having a conversation with my sister and she is sharing about a problem, my instinct is to offer advice as to how I think this issue should be resolved.  My mind is so busy with trying to help her that I am not paying attention to the emotion behind her words nor the real reason why she is telling me these things: because it matters to her.  

Have you ever found yourself in a situation in which you had something truly important, truly heavy with emotional significance that you tried to share with someone you trust, but they intervened with unsolicited advice? You knew at that moment that they meant well, they were only trying to help, but what you would have appreciated more is for them to simply listen—or perhaps to say nothing at all. This is what listening requires: give and take, and a whole lot of silence.  

When you find yourself engaged in conversations with a family member or friend, try to think in terms of active listening. This means you lay aside your own opinions, thoughts, and feelings about the topic and attempt to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If you intentionally make a point to pay attention to the emotion behind the spoken words, you will find that you will have an easier time understanding why the other person brought up this topic in the first place. This may lead into a deeper discussion centered around a related subject that holds more significance for the speaker.

For example, if my friend started to detail how frustrating it has been for her to work with a specific team member on a group project, I would be tempted to offer suggestions for better interpersonal communication between the two. But if I allow my friend to share more, maybe ask a few clarifying questions along the way, I may understand that what she is actually frustrated with is not this other group member alone but really the stress she feels on a personal level due to the gravity of the project. Then, with that understanding, I can better support and encourage my friend because I realize that she is experiencing some overwhelming feelings.  

With the holiday season approaching and many of us are anticipating, either with dread or happiness, the gathering of family and friends, I thought it might be helpful to share a few tips to keep in mind when seeking to engage in active listening.

  1. Slow Down – Often we miss the real meaning of what is being shared, either because we are in a rush to move on to the next activity or we are in a rush to give a response. When you are having a conversation with someone, take your time to really listen to what was said, consider how important the subject is to the speaker, and then reply, if a response is indeed necessary.  
  2. Take Note – Something to be mindful of is the emotional reaction you may have in response to what was shared. If we feel that the speaker is calling us out for something we did or did not do, we may get defensive and speak before we think. Or if what they share makes us uncomfortable, we might find ourselves trying to change the topic. Consider how your own emotional reaction may influence your next words before you speak.
  3. Stay Silent – Remember that silence is a great tool, both for you and the person you are with. Reflect on times when you would have appreciated a quiet, listening ear—and try to offer that experience to the person speaking. You may find that they will take the initiative to ask you for suggestions or observations. Then you will not be supplying unsolicited advice but rather helpful support.

Listening may require you to temporarily lay aside your own thoughts and feelings for time, just long enough to take into consideration what the other person is going through. While this sacrifice of self might be difficult, it will ultimately be worth it as you build trust and rapport with those you care about and, in turn, help them to be in a better position later on to listen to you.

About Autumn (she/her): Autumn Irons serves as an Administrative Assistant at Newberg Counseling & Wellness. She is a graduate of George Fox University, with a B.A. in Psychology. Having two years of experience working with counselors in Newberg, Autumn plans to seek a Masters in Counseling herself with the intention of serving her community. Autumn enjoys the simple delights of life such as homemade chocolate chip cookies, good coffee, her faith, and her family and friends. 

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