She was fragile when I first met her. She wasn’t confident, or in possession of her own perspective on many topics, hadn’t developed strong oratory and communication skills and was emotional. It didn’t take me long to see this, because I was there once.
I knew it would be years before significant positive change could be achieved. Why? This woman had spent a lifetime not being heard and understood and had consequently lost her confidence and ability to contribute credibly and effectively.
In short, she had lost her voice. She had been silenced.
How many of us have felt like we have no voice in our homes, marriages, work places, schools and in the political sphere? Many of us, I’m sure, who have also felt its associated pain.
There is an inexhaustible desire within all of us to be heard and understood. To be heard is not simply to ‘hear’ the combination of sounds produced by the vocal cords and formed by different combinations of shapes in the nose, throat and mouth, to construct what we understand as language.
Hearing is not a passive act. The person with whom we speak truly hears when they first identify the meaning of our communication and second, understand the intent of our communication. This is what it means to be truly heard and understood.
We know we’re not being heard and understood when our ‘hearer’:
- Cuts us off in an attempt to finish our sentences
- Speaks for us
- Develops their own statements while we are speaking
- Denies our perspective or our ability to speak altogether
You may have also noticed that these things occur with increasing frequency during conflict, when there is more to gain or lose and emotions are high.
We may experience from this a sense of alienation, disrespect, aggravation, hopelessness, disempowerment and maybe even the sense of being alone in the world.
Sure, there are those who don’t realise they are speaking for us or cutting us off, because they are simply excited to convey a thought they’ve just had. Most of the time, however, speaking for – or over – someone else, is about power.
The experience of not being heard or understood will resonate with most of us. But how many of us are willing to admit we have prevented another person from being heard? If I’m honest, I know I have.
Each of us implicitly or explicitly believes our perspective to be more valuable than other people’s. We may do this on the basis of our gender, intelligence, education, position, ethnicity or religion. Others must remain pliable, amenable and even docile under the weight of our own convictions and perspective.
And yet the truth is that people seem ready to listen only after they feel like they’ve been heard and understood. We must be sincere in hearing and understanding others, before they are willing to hear and understand us. This is particularly the case in conflict situations.
So the truth cuts both ways: if you want to be heard and understood, first seek to hear and understand.
We may be tempted to say, “I don’t need to hear and understand people because when I speak, they hear and act on my command.” If this is you, the benefits you get won’t last long. Why?
We might be able to make demands of others, whether we’re a husband or wife, a parent, an employer, or a political leader, but demands won’t gain us true respect. And there is a limit to people’s ability to remain in a context in which they are not heard and understood.
Marriages may grow cold in love, children may rebel or experience delays in their development, work places may experience high turnover and citizens of a country may revolt.
Thankfully, there is another way.
The following steps have helped me significantly:
- Identify whether you do any of the things in the list above (cutting people off, speaking for them etc) and change your communication habits
- Adopt an attitude that is curious, humble and open to the thoughts and perspectives of other people
- Acquire a learning attitude in which every person could enhance and add value to your understanding
- View other people as possessing a right to a perspective different from your own – they have had a different set of experiences, education and socio-cultural inputs
- Seek to understand the meaning and intent of the other person’s message through active listening and genuine interest in their views
- Learn to be a great questioner – good questions hold the key to true understanding
Remember, if you can’t convey the meaning and intent of the communicator’s message back to them, chances are you haven’t really heard their message. Truly hearing and understanding other people will foster a peaceful and more productive society. Let’s make it happen.