One of the great things about getting married is marriage prep. Marriage prep is brilliant; we did it, like, three times. In fact I think I might need some more marriage prep in my life. It’s just so cool to get the wisdom and insight of wise and insightful people on a core skill that you know you are going to need pretty much every day of the rest of your life: relating.
Relating, of course, is not merely the domain of the married. In fact, I feel pretty safe saying that it’s the domain of at least all humans. A lot of the learning opportunities for relating seem to get pumped into marriage, though. Are there courses for Moving to a New City Prep? Becoming a Godmother Prep? Long Distance Friendship Prep? I’m not sure, but just in case there aren’t, I thought I’d share a simple but powerful exercise from one of the marriage prep courses we did. It’s called Effective Listening and it’s definitely not just for marriage, though it doesn’t do marriages any harm either.
Aaron and I did it over four years ago now, and this is what I remember thinking at the time:
- Listening is tiring.
- No, seriously, for anything more than just a few minutes, it’s exhausting.
- We’ve known each other for years, been friends, run a charity together, dated and got engaged, but have we ever actually listened to each other before?
Most of us go through life having meaningful conversations and connections but very rarely truly, fully listening. That’s OK – most conversations don’t call for 100% listening, or 100% focus – but being able to give it when it is needed is a game-changer. Listening, really listening, is incredibly powerful. It can completely turn a conversation around. It can completely turn a person around.
This exercise helps you build your listening muscles. Now, I’m not going to lie to you – it is pretty awkward, just like doing push-ups is when you first get started – but it’s worth it, so if you try this, push through the awkward and get to the gold!
Effective Listening Exercise
Adapted (by me) from The Marriage Preparation Course (by Alpha)
The original can be found on pg 9 of The Marriage Preparation Course Guest Manual
- Get a good night’s sleep (you’re going to need it).
- Find someone to listen to.
- Sit down opposite them, turn your phone onto silent, put all your devices in your bag and look at the person.
- Ask your friend to tell you about something that is worrying them. Listen carefully.
- Reflect back what they have said, particularly about their feelings, to show that you have understood. If you didn’t understand, your friend should tell you again.
- Then ask, “What’s concerning you most about what you’ve told me?”
- Again, reflect back what they say.
- Then ask, ‘Is there anything you could do (or, if appropriate, you’d like me or us to do) about what you’ve just said?’
- Again, reflect back what they say.
- Finally ask, ‘Is there anything else you would like to say?’
Then swap roles.
Rules for the listener:
- no advice-giving
- no interrupting
- no going off on a tangent
- no sharing your point of view
- no checking your phone
- Embrace the awkward – if you’re both about to giggle, give each other a massive grin, and then get back to listening.
- When the person is talking, really concentrate on what they’re saying. Most likely, you will find your mind wandering. Maybe you have an opinion on what they’re saying. Maybe you want to advise them. Maybe you are just wondering if you’ve got any messages since you turned your phone on silent. Whatever it is, as soon as you notice that you’re thinking instead of listening, bring your mind back to focus. If needed, ask the person to repeat the last couple of sentences and then keep going. Really try and give them your full focus. It gets easier with practice.
- The goal, when you’re listening, is to really understand your friend, especially when they think or feel differently to you. Try to see the world through their eyes, and when you ‘reflect back’ check out your understanding to see if it’s right.
- Keep the 10 steps near you, and read out the next question when it’s time to move on. This stops you thinking about what the next question is while they’re talking.
- ‘Reflect back’ just means tell your friend what you heard and understood without adding any of your own interpretation, advice or opinion. You can literally use their words. Here’s an example.
Me: I feel anxious about driving a bus in London for the first time. I’m just worried about what people will think of me if I don’t go fast enough, and I’m not sure I’ve got the guts to weave through all the traffic.
Listener (reflecting back): So, you’re feeling anxious and worried? Because you’re not sure what people will think of you if you don’t go fast enough, but you’re not sure you’ll be able to go fast enough because you might not have the guts to weave through all the traffic – is that right?
Reflecting back feels silly, but it really works.
It’s been a long time since I’ve done this exercise properly, but I remember how powerful it was when we did it, so I’m setting myself a challenge. This week I’m going to ask someone to do this exercise with me. Will you join me? I challenge you to do the same thing – find a friend, forward them the post, and set up a time to spend half an hour really listening to each other. I’d love to hear how it goes! You can let me know in the comments, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by messaging me on Twitter (@wyldeandfree)
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