NIPS Listening Turns: Keep Your Mouth Shut 90% of the Time–and a Few Suggestions
First, the 90%:
In a NIPS Listening Turns, two people agree to take turns listening to each other without interruption or advice giving in complete confidence and with permission to express feelings, even deep ones.. These Turns can last from a minute each to an hour each.
People reliably think better about a topic they have discussed in a Listening Turn, especially if they have been able to express any feelings associated with that topic. This is the report from decades of experience involving hundreds of thousands of people. They often also feel better, although that is not their primary purpose.
Unlike many other approaches to systematic listening, there is no need for some of the advanced techniques taught in various classes: summarizing, paraphrasing, empathizing, etc. Just be quiet, and try to keep eye contact with the speaker. Occasionally nodding your head or saying “uh-huh” may help.
Often when people are listened to without interruptions, they will express strong feelings. You may have seen the TV ad where they put a couch on the sidewalk and offered to listen to people. The people who came and sat down and talked often cried. So will people in Listening Turns. They will probably laugh a lot. They might tremble a little. They may express irritation. They yawn a lot.
These are all good things. You do not have to intervene to stop any of these natural, physiological processes.
Simply listening without comment or interruption is the core of a Listening Turn, hence the name! We think it is 90% of what people need.
Now, a few suggestions for the other 10%–especially after you have done this for awhile.
The Four Safety Questions
Based on the long experience of many peer support communities, it is possible to increase the power of these Listening Turns by following what we call the Four Safety Questions. Basically, if the Listener can increase the speaker’s psychological sense of safety then he or she is more apt to explore the feelings associated with any topic and hence benefit more from the Listening Turn.
1. What do you like about the person telling their story? Just keeping eye contact with a look of understanding and compassion on your face is a good start. It is a good idea to actually list the things you like about the person in your mind as a way to get in touch with this positive feeling. Lean forward in your chair. Be an “active listener.” This listening is 90% of the process.
2.What is the nature of the feeling or emotional pain underlying the story? Using our assumptions (which are as good as any) there are really only a few basic types of emotional pain—grief over some loss, fear, anger, boredom plus actual physical from an injury. It helps to make your best guess and label it along with the specific situation in which it occurred. Most of the other 10% is encouraging the person to pay more attention to the way they were hurt. Are you sad? Do you feel afraid? You sound angry?
3.What are a number of ways to let the story teller know that the old painful incident is not currently happening, i.e. that it is now safe? For example, if they were alone, you might say something to remind them that you are really here and listening. Sometimes touching their shoulder or hand makes the point better that anything you can say. If they were in danger, you might remind them that there is no present danger. You might tell them you will help them if anything comes up.
4.What happens when you try one of these ideas and attempt to encourage them in one or more of these ways? If your guesses were right about the emotional pain they are talking about and the kind of statement or gesture you might make to let them know the current situation is different from the past situation, then the story teller will express more of their feelings. If they do not express any more feelings, just return to listening and reconsider your answers to the first questions. Maybe you didn’t accurately identify the pain the person is feeling (and everyone’s subjective experience of a feeling is different) or maybe the thing you chose to say or do did not get interpreted the way you had hoped and you need to try one of your other ideas. For example, a man putting his hand on a woman’s hand may be interpreted romantically rather than sympathetically. Just go back to listening, continually coming back to question #1 periodically in your mind. Your unconditional positive regard for this person will show through.
When these “safety” questions work, you will observe it concretely and immediately. You offer an opposite view: they laugh, or cry or tremble. Their face moves. There is something about the safety the opposite view provides—or the evidence that you are working with them on their problem. You do not need a microscope or a PhD. They cry. You see the tears. Two peers can help each other. What is nice about this insight from other peer support communities is its simplicity and its effectiveness. You really don’t need a PhD to increase the value of your listening to someone else. Therefore, the session consists of long periods with one person talking or expressing feelings with occasional interjections by the listener which may or may not deepen those expressions of feelings. It is important to remember that your principal job is to listen. It’s always best when you keep your interjections to a very minimum.
When a person has finished a Listening Turn, it is important to take a moment an remind the person speaking that the Turn is over. It is easiest for us to think of our mind like a flashlight. We can point it anywhere we please. During Listening Turns, especially as an individual does more and more of them, he or she increasingly points their mind back to the painful experiences that limit their current functioning in some way. A mother criticizing or a father administering physical punishment. The loss of a beloved parent. This allows us to tell the story in detail and process the feelings we did not have time to process at the time. At any other time, we learn to point our mind, our attention, away from those old memories onto interesting things around us in the present or in the future. We use these “present time” techniques at the end of a Listening Turn, especially if we have been feeling some heavy feelings, to get ready to listen to our partner or to go back to everyday life. For some of us, the emotional pain has been so bad that we keep thinking about it 24/7. That is how we think of “flashbacks,” “nightmares”, “intrusive thoughts” and many more serious “mental problems.” Our attention is just stuck back on those old experiences, thinking about them and telling others about them in hopes of having someone listen long enough while we got emotional enough to be free of their negative effects. When one of us has our attention “stuck” like that, pointed at the wrong target, so to speak, we do NOT recommend putting any more attention on the hurtful experiences. Instead, we will spend our entire listening turns doing Present Time techniques so we can function more effectively afterwards.
So in the meantime, we use some present time techniques to help the person who has been talking about an old, painful memory focus his or her attention on the her and now. We may say something like, “What are you looking forward to in your life right now?” Or “If you were tasked with redecorating this room, what would be the first thing you’d throw out?” (Humor is a good tool.) Or, “Can you talk a little about something that it new and good in your life.” Sometimes a simple statement can help– a reminder that “you are surrounded right now by people who care about you and have your best interest at heart.” Be creative and use your own imagination. When your efforts come from your own caring for the other person and it is “personalized” by you, they tend to hit the mark.