In a recent workshop, I conducted an exercise that my friend and colleague Marlene Chism practices. I asked the audience to stand up, pick a partner, and have a quick conversation completing this thought:
GIVEN EVERYTHING THAT’S GOING ON IN MY LIFE RIGHT NOW, I’VE BEEN SPENDING A LOT OF TIME THINKING ABOUT… (INSERT THOUGHTS HERE).
To the person listening, I instruct him or her to answer saying just three words:
I. HEAR. YOU.
I think that if we spent more time having this type of authentic exchange with another person each day, the world would be a better place. On top of that, I think we’d spend less money on medication, counseling and bartenders!
During my years as a crisis counselor, consultant, and leadership coach, I can attest that many listeners have a hard time saying those three little words: I hear you.
And I think it happens for a couple of reasons.
I HEAR YOU doesn’t mean “I AGREE WITH YOU”
It doesn’t. I once listened to an employee explain why she showed up late for work. She told me:
“My roommate had friends over last night, and they wouldn’t leave. I couldn’t sleep, so it was really hard for me to get out of bed.”
WHAT I COULD HAVE SAID: “Do you really want me to resolve your roommate issue for you? Are you twelve? Have you ever considered saying, ‘I’m an adult and have to get up for work tomorrow. So…goodbye, friends of my roommate!'”?
MY ACTUAL WORDS: “I hear you.”
I did not buy into the excuses, nor did I argue with them. Instead, I demonstrated that I was willing to listen without interrupting or judging her. Saying “I hear you” allowed her to talk it out.
Once she finished, she squirmed a bit in my silence. Then she said something that turned the conversation: “Okay, hearing myself say that sounded lame even to me! I’ll be here on time tomorrow.” And her tardiness issue improved from that point on.
I HEAR YOU doesn’t mean “HERE! LET ME FIX IT”
When my wife first started to share some of her stresses of the day with me, I misunderstood her to say, “I really want you to fix this!”
She set me straight by pre-teaching me by saying something like, “Can I talk to you about something that’s on my mind? I don’t need you to do anything about it except listen.”
It’s not bad that we want to rush in to fix problems people bring our way. But it’s unnecessary. People often process out loud. The very act of vocalizing a problem provides them provides a level of catharsis.
I HEAR YOU means only that I CARE ENOUGH TO HEAR YOU
The next time someone shares a problem with you, try this:
1. Give your full attention. If you’re in the middle of something when a person comes to you, tell him. Then offer him a time when you can listen without distraction. You’re not as good at multitasking as you think. If someone comes to you, that person thinks the matter important. Show respect by making this the most important thing you have to do at this particular moment.
2. Look, nod, and offer affirmative body language. Be aware of any telltale cues you send to the person that may communicate, “I think this is stupid” or “I could be doing something else.” Remind yourself that the person is coming to you for a reason, likely because you are trusted and respected. This step here is where you insert a verbal or nonverbal I HEAR YOU with your rapt attention.
3. Ask, “What do you plan to do about it?” Notice it’s not about taking ownership of the issue. Instead, it validates the feelings the person has, and it forces the listener to come up with some action steps. If the person comes back with an action plan that involves you, determine how far you are willing to go to help. It’s better to say NO and later change your mind to YES then to quickly offer to help only to become resentful afterwards.
Saying I HEAR YOU allows the person talking to you an opportunity to truly be heard, a commodity that is hard to come by in our fast-paced world. On top of that, it keeps you from having to be a world-class counselor while making you a better “counselor” at the same time!