As a child, when I didn’t understand something my father was saying, he would simply say it again louder. If I still didn’t “hear him” the second or third time, he would continue to increase both his volume and enunciation of the same phrase over and over again to the point of yelling, which only culminated in his exasperation and me bursting into tears.
Can you identify with my dad? Ever feel frustrated or angry because your partner or kid or boss doesn’t hear you?
For some people, not feeling heard is a big trigger point and sore spot in their relationship. Conversations can easily escalate to the point of yelling or even violence if people feel misunderstood and not heard.
Feeling heard is an essential part of the two-way communication process. One person speaks, or delivers a message non-verbally, and the other person deciphers that communication in the form of listening and receiving.
Hearing is an important part of the communication bridge in relationship that makes connection and the coordination of action possible. If we miss the communication, if we don’t “hear” what the other person is trying to convey, we fall off that bridge of connection.
In extreme instances, miscommunications like these can be life threatening. But even if the misunderstanding is about something as mundane as whose job is it to do dishes, while not actually life threatening, we can still feel as if we are going to explode if the other person doesn’t get our side of things.
What are we actually going for when we want to be heard? And why is it such a big deal when we don’t have that experience?
Below, I’ll share some of the reasons why being heard is important, I’ll give examples from coaching sessions, and finally, I’ll share how this is useful in your relationships.
For some of us, being heard means we will get what we want. We believe that the experience of being heard will result in the other person seeing our side of things, agreeing with us, and that will increase the likelihood that we will get what we want.
I remember having a heated conversation with our son in his teens, when he was trying to talk Christian and I into having a drug/drinking pool party at our house without adults on the premises. We were not willing to budge on our decision, and even though I was hearing my son and repeating back his well-intentioned points, he insisted I wasn’t hearing him because we weren’t changing our minds. He was confusing hearing with agreeing.
Call to Action
For some of us, being heard means you get my words and the call to action behind my words. In the example above, my dad was confusing me not understanding what he was saying with me not being able to hear his words. He spoke to me like I was someone who was hard of hearing or didn’t speak or understand English.
But it wasn’t because I wasn’t hearing his words. It was the meaning behind his words that I couldn’t hear or make sense of, which hindered my ability to take the action he was requesting of me. When he asked me to get him a wrench, for example, and I had no idea what a wrench was. Him yelling louder about it didn’t change anything about my understanding or ability to fulfill his call for action.
In order for us to hear a request that requires a response or action on our part, it helps if the speaker is direct with their requests. However, in the world of relationship, we are often indirect in our communications. For example, if I say, “the garbage is overflowing”, I am likely to not feel heard if you take what I said as an informational report rather than as a request: “Will you take out the garbage?”
A man recently sent us this in an email … “I feel as a man that being heard is a real issue. I grew up not trusting anyone with my innermost secrets and feelings. [Despite my] really working on and making efforts to be accountable, honest and open, I don’t feel heard in my relationship. Seems to me my wife wants me to “talk” and “share feelings” and “be open” so long as it fits her agenda or ideals. This just sends me back to the point where I feel “sharing” is not worth it.”
For many of us, sharing and being heard is a way for us to know ourselves, and to experience feeling known by others. When we put our internal experience on “loud speaker” and are able to freely explore our thoughts, feelings, values, dreams, desires and inner workings, we come to accept and know ourselves more deeply.
When someone hears our ruminations with curiosity and interest, without judgment or interruption, we feel known, seen, witnessed. We feel close to the listener. We feel less alone in our separate existence and experience. Not only that, but we are more inclined to want to continue sharing ourselves if we are received and heard when we do.
I witnessed a coaching session last week that was deeply moving. The coach listened to his client talk about her mixed feelings about moving from New York back to Italy, her country of origin, after several years in the states. She spoke of herself as a risk taker, highlighted her successes, and spent most of the time talking about the challenging logistics of moving.
When the coach reflected back what he had heard, he added having heard her underlying fear and concern of looking like a failure to her family at returning home. She was deeply affected by his reflections, seeing the truth of his words. He had listened not just to her words, but to the deeper fears behind her story.
A client of ours was complaining about her husband’s preoccupation with work. His long hours at work meant less time at home and she was fed up with having to do everything herself. Instead of reacting defensively to her criticisms, with our help, he was able to listen “underneath” her complaint to her loving desire for more time together. Instead of hearing her disapproval, he was able to hear her loving call to connect with the man she loved. This allowed him to lean into creating more connecting time with his wife and family at home.
Sometimes what we want in our quest to be heard is validation and affirmation for who we are. We want to know that we are okay, that we are loved, and that we matter. When you hear my words, respond to my requests, meet my needs, mirror back my deepest feelings, I get to feel like I am important in your eyes. Your acceptance of me helps me accept myself. Your love for me helps me love myself more.
One of the best definitions I once heard of love is, “Love is granting space for something or someone to exist.” When you hear and allow what I say without resistance or judgment, it is like you are allowing me to exist in your acceptance of my communication. In this way, you could say that hearing me is one of the deepest expressions of love you can offer.
Recently, I coached a couple that was stuck in negative stories about each other. She was afraid he was withholding secrets from her and wanted access to his phone. He felt micromanaged and didn’t want to give her access to his phone to avoid feeling powerless. In each case, their listening of each other was shaped by their own fears and negative stories.
Every time she shared her fears, he heard, “I want to micro-manage you!” Every time he moved to protect his autonomy, she heard, “I am withholding secrets from you!” They couldn’t hear their mate’s underlying fears: “I am afraid to lose you if you talk to your ex” and “I am afraid of your rejection if I do something that scares you.” They were too busy fighting to be right about the other person being micromanaging or withholding.
Sometimes our communications are attempting to prove our innocence and goodness. If I can just get you to hear that the reason I didn’t make dinner was because I took care of the cat, then you will quit judging me as wrong and bad for not keeping my agreement to cook. Once you hear me, I will get to be right about not making dinner as promised.
How Can We Use This?
There are many different experiences and results we are after when we are going for being heard. The most important thing we can do to help ourselves feel heard in relationship is to first explore what we are after. Do we want to be known? Do we want to be right? Do we want to get our way about something? Do we want someone to act? Do we want something to change?
The next thing we can remember is that we human beings are closed biological systems with our own interpretations and understanding of things. If feel that you’re not hearing me, maybe there is something going on in you that is preventing you from hearing me. Maybe you have an old negative story about me that has you interpret what I am saying as criticism versus a compliment? Or maybe you have a different definition of “helping around the house” than I do and what’s required is more exploration?
Or maybe I am not being clear about my intention in sharing, and I can rephrase what I am saying in a way that produces my desired result and outcome. Instead of launching into a complaint about us not having sex anymore, which might have you rebuff me, I can slow things down and share how much I miss connecting with you in this really special loving way. Instead of complaining about how you are never home, I can make a direct request, “Would you be willing to come home early on Wednesday so we can have a date together, just you and me?”
If you find that clarifying your intentions and making clear requests before going for getting heard doesn’t work, get support from an experienced coach or therapist to help you bridge the gap.
One couple who always fought when she wanted to share something she was triggered about and he disappeared to work in the yard as fast as possible, were able to understand each other’s differing responses to stress with the help of our coaching.
Now, when she wants to “talk”, he hears her desire to connect, and when he disappears to work in the yard, she hears his desire to avoid criticism and be a good man in her eyes. This different understanding has helped them be less reactive and they are better able to hear each other as a result.
Your desire to be heard is a good thing. Use it to bring you closer to all the good things you long for.
“Listening is an attitude of the heart, a genuine desire to be with another which both attracts and heals.” L.J. Isham