Hearing the Feelings Behind the Words

Imagine someone in your small group coming to you and saying, "I didn't agree with what you said tonight. Maybe I shouldn't be in this group." The scenario's not that unlikely; people often show indications that they are hurting or need attention to a group leader. You must realize, however, that they might not be saying exactly what's on their minds. You not only need to comprehend their words, but the feelings behind their words.

We think listening is just what we do when we're not talking. But that's not true. Listening is hard work. Communication is 10% information and 90% emotion. People often say the same things over and over because they don't feel their emotions have been heard. It's easy for a listener to jump over feelings and give advice, share facts, or try to minimize the problem rather than really hear what's being said.

Feeling Stoppers

In her book on self-esteem, Dorothy Briggs says we often use four feeling stoppers which cut off those who want to be heard. Here are examples:

Cheering: "It could be worse." "You'll do fine."

Reasoning: "You were able to come through worse than this in the past, so you should be able to handle this." "But God promises us...."

Judgment: "You shouldn't let yourself get this way." "As a Christian you shouldn't worry about this."

Denial: "You're not afraid (angry, depressed)." "Say you're feeling better (even if you aren't)."

When we refuse to hear someone else's feelings, we are telling that person: "Your feelings are not okay You have no right to feel that way." But feelings are neither right nor wrong; it's what we do with them that's right or wrong.

Say one of your small-group members says to you, "I've bent over backwards to be nice to my roommate, but she'll barely speak to me. I feel like moving out." Keeping in mind the feeling stoppers above, which of the following responses would you say shows that the listener has really heard the speaker?

A. "Some people are hard to figure out."

B. "If I were you I'd talk to her about it."

C. "It must be frustrating to have something like this happen, especially when you don't know why."

D. "All things work together for good. . . ."

The answer "C" above best shows the speaker that she has been heard. It doesn't necessarily mean that the listener agrees, but it signals that he hears. Giving advice or judgment too soon will make the speaker continue to attempt to convince you of his or her feelings: "Yes, I know, but I still feel like giving up." Our most common misconception is that people want us to solve their problems for them. Most often they just want us to hear them out.

Continuing Responses

In contrast to feeling stoppers, continuing responses encourage the speaker to keep talking, giving him or her a chance to sort through and express emotions. Continuing responses also help listeners convey that they genuinely want to understand, while giving speakers a chance to help listeners more clearly know what they are experiencing, so that listeners can later be better equipped to give input. By encouraging the speaker to talk, the listener silently communicates some powerful messages: "I want to care, but I don't know how to care for you yet. Tell me more"; and "You can talk openly with me without fearing how I will react."

Continuing responses fall into three categories: non-verbal, content and affective.

Non-verbal responses. Our facial expressions, eye contact, posture, arm, hand and leg positions -- all of our body language speaks as loudly as our words. In fact, if we say the words, "I care about you," but cross our arms, look at our watch, play with our hair and look bored, then the only message the speaker will hear is, "I don't care."

We can help put someone at ease, in fact, by mirroring their gestures. Vernie Schorr of Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church in Walnut Creek California, writes: "Mirroring is a technique that we often use unconsciously in our exchanges with other people. As our companion nods and smiles, we nod and smile in affirmation. This natural response has a powerful use in the small group, because we express empathy and interest in another person as we mirror his or her simple actions."

Content responses. We can not only mirror someone's gestures, but their words. When we hear someone else's feelings and express them back to him or her, we are "reflecting." Like a mirror, we send back what has been given to us (e.g., "I can't believe that guy ripped me off. That makes me really mad"; "You feel angry that you've been cheated."). Reflecting feelings cultivates a climate of acceptance. Acceptance releases a person from the fear of being judged, allowing him or her to share more honestly and open up to receive truth and guidance.

Reflecting a person's words not only shows that you're listening, but gives that person a chance to hear what they're saying and explore their true feelings. They may say, "I'm angry about such-and-such." But when they hear you mirror their words back to them, they might think further and say, "Well, that's not really why I'm angry. I'm angry because . . ." or "l guess I'm not angry so much as hurt." Remember: Your goal is to keep them talking, so that they (and you) better understand the situation.

Affective responses. After we have a better grasp of the situation, we can then move into affective responses -- helping the listener identify an emotion that they haven't explicitly stated yet. For example, your small-group member confesses to you, "I'm so mad at my parents. I'm never going to trust them again." A content response might be, "You're angry at your parents and don't feel like you can trust them." After you get him to talk further about his feelings, you might make an affective response, such as, "It sounds like you feel hurt by your parents." (Up to this point, the speaker had only mentioned feeling angry, not hurt.)

Finally, a word about advice. It's easy to give. But only do so if the speaker asks for it -- and if you can answer "yes" to the following questions: Do I understand the nature of the problem? Do I have specific plans or strategies to help overcome this problem? Am I willing to assume some responsibility for helping this person overcome the problem?

Listening Lab

Now it's your small group's turn to practice listening and reflecting. Divide into pairs. Give each person one or two sheets of paper with one of the following statements written on each:

  • "I hate having to play these small-group games where you have to open up to people. It's dangerous to let people get too close to you. Everyone I've ever trusted at this school has let me down"
  • "I really have a hard time reading the Bible. I suppose I should set up some kind of program. But I've failed so often that I keep putting it off"
  • "I didn't agree with what you said tonight. Maybe I just shouldn't be in this group"
  • "Every time I try to tell my parents about what's bothering me it seems like they don't want to hear what I say."

Give group members the following instructions: "Each person has a comment written on a sheet of paper. Break up into pairs and take turns listening carefully to each other as you read your statements. Practice non-verbal, content and affective responses, until you've clearly identified what the speaker of the comment is feeling. Afterwards, ask yourselves these questions:

  • What feeling stoppers (e.g., cheering, reasoning, judgment, denial) were the listeners tempted to use in each case?
  • What effect did that feeling stopper have (or what effect would it have had, if it had been used)?
  • What non-verbal and verbal responses helped the speaker know that he or she was really being heard?"

Good listening is more than just not talking. Truly hearing what is being said is a generous gift to give others in your community.

by Dennis Anderson and Julie Gorman

(from Student Leadership Journal, vol. 2:3)