When we are ignored in a relationship—by parents, a partner, a group, or even the government—and our fears and pain are consistently overlooked, we tend to dissolve in quiet desperation. Unless, of course, we see a possibility for change. In that case quiet desperation might just turn into anger if not revolt.
Think of an abused child: As long as she is tightly controlled without access to capable adults, she is likely to suffer alone, withdrawn and depressed. I, for one, did, and I know how much this hurts. But when there is even the slightest room for negotiation or a special someone who appears to have a listening ear, the first response is often an outburst. It comes in form of an avalanche of tears, complaints, and other furious expressions. Outbursts are like alarm sirens: We are supposed to pay attention. If we fail to listen, an ignored child might turn up the volume or go deeper into depression. When we pay attention, feelings pass, and solutions can be found.
Children are the most vulnerable, but adults react similarly. The need to be heard is so much a part of the human condition, and our brains are uniquely equipped to fulfill it. We can decipher non-verbal communication in split seconds, hone in on the smallest subtleties in speech, analyze complicated personal matters, bond with others with the production of hormones such as oxytocin, and empathize with the help of so-called mirror neurons—specialized nerve cells that fire in unison with a person who suffers.1 In other words, nature has thoroughly prepared us to respond to others’ suffering for the sake of our overall health and happiness. If we do not pay attention, the price we pay is dysfunction and pain, ranging from estrangements and divorces to the breaking off of traditions.
Along these lines, it makes sense that voters in many countries are becoming angrier. They feel ignored by decision makers. It hurts when the leaders we put in place to protect our interests are hard of hearing. Great challenges are unmet, such as climate change, racism, sexism, job insecurity, and excessive, multi-leveled competition producing unprecedented stress and loneliness. Not to mention the unequal distribution of wealth with 400 Americans possessing as much as two-thirds of the rest of the population.2 To be ignored is painful and hampers our growth. Only when we are being heard can we thrive. As historians Will and Ariel Durant put it:
“In any case a challenge successfully met…raises the temper and level of a nation, and makes it abler to meet further challenges.”3
To return to the personal, from which the greatest change always comes, once more the Durants:
“The only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual,”4
What can we do to become good listeners and initiate change? How can you become a better parent, partner, member of a group, or politician? When you are willing, it isn't hard:
1. Take the other person seriously.
Lay aside your opinions of what should and shouldn’t hurt. Just because you feel good does not mean others do. What matters is not your judgment, but the felt reality yet to be discovered. Good listening is wholly based on tolerating differences.
2. Abstain from distracting.
Don’t try to dilute someone's pain by making false promises or offering fake and fast solutions. Distractions are for scraped knees, not bleeding wounds.
3. Take time to listen.
Give ample attention to the other person. When you listen with the utmost focus, the other person’s expression can be swift. Remind yourself of your priorities as you offer undivided attention as a supreme gift in a hectic world.
4. Validate the other person's experience.
Validation is an essential building block of connections. (See A Unified Theory of Happiness.) It is a skill many lack, however, which can ruin their every relationship. Don’t just listen—affirm that you are listening and what you have actually heard.
5. Be curious.
When the other person appears to exaggerate or you don’t fully understand, probe for underlying issues. Most of the time curiosity trumps assumption. Ask many questions.
6. Put yourself in the other person's shoes.
When empathy escapes you, make a conscious effort to take the other person’s perspective. A great technique for couples is to reverse roles and explain the problem from the other partner’s side.
7. Offer advice (maybe).
Frequently, deep listening suffices. Resist the temptation to give advice, unless you are being asked to do so and when all aspects of the issue are fully understood.
8. Collaborate on a possible solution.
Listening ought not to end when the other person is “through.” It is often inappropriate, disempowering, and ineffective to solve the problem for the other person. When you put your heads together while keeping an open heart and ear, the most fitting solutions are likely to emerge.
If you are the ignored one, don't give up on yourself: Ask for attention; demand attention; stand up for what you need. You might have to be persistent and patient, but always with the understanding that you have the right to happiness.