Communication- How to Listen Well and Speak Up for Yourself

By Amy Davis LMHC

Communication. It’s something we all have to do, daily, if not constantly, with our bosses, spouses, family, friends, children and even strangers. For some, it seems to come so easy, confidently expressing thoughts themselves. While for others, it is a major struggle to get across the simplest of requests without feeling uncomfortable.

Things get even more complicated when conflicts arise, because we all think our way is the best way. Or in my case, I know my way is the best way! So we defend our positions and make our case to win. But I wonder if in trying to be right and “win” an argument, we miss the point entirely. The point, that it is often in “losing” that we actually win, because the goal was never to agree, but to connect, to love one another.

Thinking about your own tendencies, are you always the one who has to be right? Do you say the thing you know will press his buttons or will make her feel the worst? Are you putting all of your energy into defending yourself, that you forget to really listen to what she is saying, or even really what you’re saying? Do you shut down and try to avoid any issues that seem overwhelming? Are you so afraid of doing the wrong thing, that all you can hear is that you have disappointed him again? Do you feel the need to fix it, instead of holding her through it?

In marriage and in relationships the thing I have found, is that everyone wants to feel important, to feel valued. Everyone wants to know that someone sees who they truly are. We all want to feel connected and understood. We want to be validated, told that out feelings are reasonable and that our behaviors are understandable in the current situation. But still, most of us, are so frozen in our own felt lack in this area, that we see no ability to give this validation to others. Obviously, this is not a simple problem. Past hurts, selfishness, addictions, family patterns, overwhelming feelings, fears of disappointing others, and many other things keep us stuck and focused on ourselves.

I believe we have a choice, and even more, biblical mandate to to care for and validate others feelings and needs in communication. Philippians 2:1-7 tells us,

“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

Sure, we have the right to be angry or hurt. We have the right to defend our position. We have the right to seek our way, but so did Christ. And if we are called to follow his example, then it is time we start choosing to count others interests, feelings and needs as significant.

One of the best ways I know how to look to the interests of others is through active listening. And to do this, it requires your full attention. Here are my favorite tips & tricks:
1. Listen with Your Body – Put down your phone, look the speaker in the eyes and turn your body to face them. Try to show in your facial expression that you are interested in what they are saying. You would be surprised how far these simple things will go to show we are present to listen.
2. Use a Kind Tone of Voice – talk to the person with kindness in your voice, like you would talk to a hurt child or pet.
3. Reflect & Summarize – try to make sense of what they are saying and how events connect to their feelings and check with them to see if you’re getting it right. Try statements like:
• So what your saying is ______
• You’ve been feeling ______ when ______ happens
• You’re having such a hard time with _______
• When I _______ it leaves you feeling _______
• What you really need is _______
4. Empathize & Validate – try and put yourself in their shoes. Why could what they’re saying make sense? How must things be for them? Try some of these statements:
• I could totally understand why you’ve been feeling that way
• That must be so hard for you
• I can’t imagine how overwhelmed you must be feeling
• It makes so much sense that you have been struggling
• Of course you’re feeling that way, that’s such a normal response
5. Take Responsibility for Your Part – see if there is something you did to contribute to the person’s pain or difficulty. Apologize and ask for forgiveness in a heartfelt way. This could sound like, “I’m so sorry I hurt you, that was never my intention, please forgive me.”
6. Put Your Stuff Aside – there are always two sides, and it is so hard to just sit and listen to a point of view that may be hard to understand, but this part of our responsibility in relationships. Once that person has got all that they need to out, then it’s your time to talk about your feelings and needs like we talked about earlier.

Let’s learn to serve each other in unity and for the sake of connection by listening first. Now let me pause here to say, that this does NOT mean we are meant to have others walk all over us and never seek for our needs to be met. When it says, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests” there’s the assumption here that you will indeed be looking to your own affairs as well. And actually, I think this is one of the hardest parts about communication. It’s easy to blame someone else for why we’re feeling hurt. But the harder and more important thing here, is taking ownership of our feelings. We need to recognize for ourselves what’s bothering us, not just the surface emotion, but searching out our deeper feelings and longings.

Once we can take ownership of what we’re feeling (not just angry, but hurt or betrayed or ashamed or alone), we must then know that those feelings are important. I have seen too many people stuck in the cycle of telling themselves what they feel isn’t a big deal, that they shouldn’t be upset or it wouldn’t be worth with sharing. Hear my words, your feelings are ALWAYS valid and important, no matter who in your life has told you otherwise.

And even though our feelings are always valid, there is another important piece of communication that has to do with our expectations. If we expect others to always validate us perfectly, or validate us at all, we will set ourselves up for disappointment. We must find our validation from within and practice compassionate detachment from others responses to us. Our goal in the speaking part of communication, is to own and talk about our feelings and needs, not to fix or change the other person. No one else can give you the respect you deserve.

So whether or not your words are well received, you have the right and responsibility to share. So what’s the best way to do this? By being assertive! My favorite format looks like this:

When (specific situation) happened, I felt (specific feeling words) because (reasons) , next time do you think you could (need or change request) ?

Put whatever situation and feelings in these blanks, this structure allows you to take responsibility for your feelings without blaming the other person. Can you imagine how much easier communication would get if we all started with owning our parts? It would definitely make for less defensiveness.

So if our goal in communication is connection, this requires effort and attention. And even though this can be some of the hardest stuff to do “in the moment” when things are heated, it is possible to take some deep breaths and choose the harder thing, for the good of relationship. Let’s step outside of ourselves and choose love together. Let’s take ownership and responsibility for our own feelings and in humility and grace count other’s feelings as important too. Let’s give those in our lives the gift of compassion, understand and a listening ear. I believe we will all be better because of it!