On Listening: Unlearning Old Habits to Build Stronger Relationships

I used to think that listening to someone was as simple as staying quiet while they talked. And frankly, I thought I was pretty good at it—I didn’t interrupt, friends opened up with me easily and I got along well with most people.

Then something happened that shook me to the core: I left my long-term partnership, along with the beautiful home and business we had built together, because of conflicts I didn’t know how to handle. Talk about a wakeup call.

Suddenly, I started taking listening very seriously. It was clearly at the heart of healthy communication, which was at the heart of healthy relationships, which for me was at the heart of a healthy, happy life. I was humbledand ready to learn.

If listening wasn’t just about being quiet while others spoke, then what exactly was it about? That question led me on a multi-year journey that involved un-learning most of what I knew and mastering the art of listening—really listening. It required a massive paradigm shift and tons of self-compassion, patience, and practice.

Here are a few lessons learned that have not only saved me a whole lot of stress, pain, and unnecessary conflict but have also added so much depth and connection to my life and relationships.

  1. Listen for what matters to people, rather than what they say. 
    Most of us have learned to express ourselves by sharing thoughts and judgments, but these things are ultimately less important than why we care about what we are sharing. My favorite tool for listening is translating what I hear into feelings and needs — guessing at the true messages underneath people’s words and simply mirroring them back. It’s amazing how this simple shift of focus (from thoughts and judgments to feelings and needs) can support people to drop in and get to the root of what’s going on for them. This also helps me avoid reacting when someone says something painful. Instead of taking their words at face value and judging what they have said, I can interpret their words as a signal about how they feel and what’s important to them, which is much easier to receive. “You’re a bad friend” becomes “I’m vulnerable and hurt because I want more closeness and dependability in our friendship.” “He’s so selfish” becomes “I’m feeling sad, and wanting reassurance and consideration.” “She’s manipulative” becomes “I’m feeling guarded and scared. I really value respect, honesty, and integrity.” For practice, try this card game or this board game with your friends and family.

  2. Listening is about presence and curiosity, not fixing. 
    Without realizing it, many of us have been programmed to respond to others’ discomfort with behaviors like problem-solving, fixing, cheering up, agreeing or disagreeing, etc. “You’re going to be okay.” “Don’t let it get under your skin!” “I’m sure it will work out.” “Here’s what you should do.” “Have you tried this?” While these responses might be useful in some specific contexts, they fall flat when true listening is needed. For these situations, I love the mantra: don’t just do something, stand there. When we’re upset or in pain, we don’t need to be fixed. We just need someone to witness our experience with curiosity and care. Questions like “How did that feel?” or “What was that like for you?” are great substitutes for the kneejerk responses above. I try to remind myself that I can trust others to feel their feelings; all I need to do is keep them company.

  3. Listening is about intention, not accuracy. 
    We aren’t mind-readers, and sometimes the reflections we offer won’t resonate for the people we’re listening to. In these moments, it can feel discouraging and it’s easy to judge ourselves or believe we “did it wrong.” But successful listening is not about perfection or “getting it right” every time! It’s about presence. It’s about showing up and reminding people they matter and they’re not alone. Surprisingly, sometimes the reflections that don’t land turn out to be even more important than the ones that do because they can lead to breakthroughs and new insights. So if my words aren’t resonating with someone, I try not to take it personally. Instead, I get curious— “That’s not it? Tell me more.” I trust that my presence and curiosity are felt and appreciated no matter what.

I’ll be honest, there are still times when I forget to listen (really listen). Perhaps more frequently than I’d like to admit, I find myself reacting, jumping to conclusions, problem-solving or analyzing in moments when it doesn’t serve. When this happens, I try to catch myself, take a breath and try again.

It’s not always easy to listen, especially when people we love are hurting—sometimes it’s quite inconvenient and uncomfortable, in fact! But it’s always worth it. Because if you ask me, human relationships are one of the most precious currencies we have these days. So let’s take care of each other. Let’s slow down and take the time to listen, no matter how imperfect or messy or challenging it may feel. And let’s remind each other over and over that we aren’t here to be fixed, we just need to be heard.

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How To Accept What You Can't Change

When it comes to life lessons, I’d say the Rolling Stones hit the nail on the head.

You can’t always get what you want. 

Unfortunately, there’s no way around it: we are bound to encounter experiences in life that we don’t want and can’t change. No matter how many self-help books we read, how many hours we spend meditating, how much therapy we get, or how many new outfits we buy… we can’t control life.

Of course, the way we think and act can certainly have meaningful influence on certain aspects of our lives. And trust me, I’m all for practices of self-inquiry and growth. But ultimately, life will do what it does. It doesn’t follow our agenda. It’s fluid. It’s mysterious.

What I’m saying here isn’t new. We all know this. (Heck, it’s the chorus of one of the most popular rock and roll songs of all time!)  We also know that the sooner we accept life as it is, the happier we’ll be. As a favorite meme of mine says: “Relax. Nothing is under control.”

Yet somehow, in those challenging moments—when what we wanted to happen doesn’t happen, when we’re distraught or disappointed or devastated, when our dreams are dashed or our sense of hope is shaken to its core—relaxing is the last thing we tend to do.

I’ll speak for myself. My first response is often to resist. And I’m pretty good at resisting. It’s a skill I (and most of us) have been developing for years.

For me, resistance has two main paths:

Path #1: Trying to control or manipulate the situation. Performing, proving myself, working harder.  Demanding what I want. Not taking “no” for an answer. Trying to be better: more charming, more intelligent, more perfect, etc.

Where It Leads

At first, this path gives me an immediate sense of control. Over time, though, this path usually leads to burnout, low self-esteem, insecurity, and collapse. And ultimately, I miss out on my own authenticity; my true self is clouded by all my attempts to be “perfect” and “in control.”

Path #2: Denial. Talking myself out of my feelings. Telling myself why I’m better off this way, why it’s okay, why I shouldn’t care. Becoming a victim. Telling myself why I don’t deserve this, or why I do; why it’s someone else’s fault, or mine. Asserting my superiority, why I am better-than. 

Where It Leads

At first, this path offers me an escape from the pain and an easy way to make sense of my experience. Over time, however, this path usually leads to shame, blame, numbing out, shutting down, and sometimes even revenge. And ultimately, I lose the opportunity to access my own aliveness (feelings) and integrate the valuable learning from my experience.

Now, I want to be clear about something. I don’t think these paths are wrong or bad. I actually believe they are both completely innocent, logical attempts to make sense of difficult circumstances and find security in the midst of challenge. I’d even go so far as to say that I’m grateful for these paths. Thank goodness they have been there to offer me some semblance of support as I’ve made my way through tough times!

The thing is, despite their positive intention, these paths simply don’t lead me where I want to go. They don’t lead me toward true acceptance. They don’t bring me back to my heart, or help me cultivate greater strength and aliveness. Essentially, they lead to a dead end.

Luckily, there is a middle path.

This middle path is different. In this path, I choose to slow down. I breathe. I listen to my body. I open myself to become curious about what I feel, holding a fierce commitment to offer myself compassion for my feelings, regardless of what they are or whether they make sense to me. I remind myself that the thing I wanted (even though I didn’t get it) is precious to me, and that what is precious to me matters, because I matter. I choose to be gentle with myself—to resist making myself wrong for what I wanted, and instead appreciate myself for having longings, because my longings are what lets me know that I’m alive. I honor the beauty in what I wanted. I grieve that I didn’t get it.

This path is not easy. It requires vulnerability and courage; softness and grit. Yet this is the path I trust. I trust it because I like where it leads me. It leads me to wholeness, acceptance, truth and authenticity. It leads me to self-love, to my own power. It leads me to freedom.

The Rolling Stones are right. I can’t always get what I want. But I can walk the middle path. I can stay open. I can let myself feel and be human.

And that, ironically, is all I really want.