Listening For Feelings by I. Warton Ong

Most of us want better communication skills, especially in difficult situations related to performance appraisal, bad news, or actions beyond the call of duty.

Our communication tends to focus on problem-solving, we forget feelings are inevitably involved – frustration, arrogance, indifference, anger, helplessness and anxiety.

Bosses issue orders in a vacuum, without any attempt to understand how recipients feel. Family ‘discussions’ play out the same arguments over and over – because feelings are ignored.

Feelings have three general types: happy, angry or sad. Happy makes a person feel good. Angry or sad makes a person feel upset or threatened.

When feelings get in the way, participants ‘solve’ the problem through fright, flight or freeze. None is a good solution.

Our most common way of listening is not listening. We listen to our own talk. Even when we do listen to others, if we focus exclusively on content, we miss detecting feelings.

Listening to, and for, feelings can make or break a difficult discussion.

A good listener will hold back on offering advice until he is clear about the other person’s feelings. He can help the other person verbalise the issue he is facing and his feelings. This helps clarify the issue and move ahead with options that are available.

Here is a simple example:

  • Listener: How is work?
  • Speaker: Stressful and I’m overworked.
  • Listener: When you are stressed, what happens?
  • Speaker: I am not able to concentrate and I face persistent conflicts with others. This has affected my ability to perform my supervisory functions effectively.

Here, the listener must be careful not to hear this as an announcement of “persistent conflicts” and “affected my ability”. It is in reality a confession of anxiety, and perhaps fear.

The listener now has three options.
Ignoring will put the other person in the dark as to what to do next. Resentment builds up and the relationship becomes an unauthentic one.

Confrontation typically fails to influence the other to change his actions. No progress is made.

The best option is to acknowledge and understand. Say: “I understand that you feel stressed by the situation. How do you think I can help you perform better?”

Remember to use “I” often. It shows you recognise and are affected by others' feelings. It helps bring others on board.

American autobiographer Maya Angelou aptly sums it up: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

There is virtually no business without difficult communication.

But if we make the simple, practical shift to listening for feelings, we can create a more open, participative way of addressing our challenges.

I. Warton Ong is an associate trainer with the Civil Service College. He conducts classes on The Art Of Effective Listening.
    Nov 4, 2010
    I. Warton Ong
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