When I was a young girl, a fabulous woman called Pam who lived opposite us would come to do my mum’s hair once a week. Pam was a retired hairdresser and beautician who had been taught partly by Vivien Leigh’s mother.
I knew this because I listened as she and my mother talked. My mum would sit under the stand hairdryer with wads of cotton wool curling out from under her hairnet to protect her ears from the heat, and Pam would talk and talk: about Margaret Thatcher (my mum wasn’t a fan); their early lives (Pam’s in Yorkshire, my mum’s in Naples); and about life up and down the London street where we all lived.
This arrangement started when I was about eight and continued until I left home aged 22. I would sit at the dining-room table reading the Woman’s Own problem pages, stealing the biscuits my mum had put out for Pam, all the while observing how, so often, neither woman really listened to the other. My mother would wait for gaps in the conversation so she could say, “Exactly”, and then launch into her own, often unrelated, anecdote. I saw all the information missed like dropped balls: wasted opportunities for further exploration. My father was rarely present at these meets, but on the occasions he was there, he’d raise one eyebrow towards me in a knowing look.
Throughout my teens, I noticed how rarely people asked questions. Over many meals and catchups, I would watch as family members interrupted and road-blocked conversations, sending the chat on a detour that became all about them. We have one well-known culprit in the family: I can count on the fingers of a mitten how often, in the two decades we’ve known him, he asks anybody anything about themselves. As a child, I lacked the words to explain the way I felt, and was often shut down. Thus observing how not to do it, I resolved to be different.
It was only when I was appointed the Guardian’s agony aunt in 2008 that I realised I still had a lot to learn. As part of the process of replying to readers’ letters, I would invite specialists (usually therapists) to work with me on compiling the answers. I was greedy for their insights into human behaviour, and soon learned that the basis of every problem I received was communication in some shape or form.
Listening, I discovered, wasn’t just about waiting for the other person to stop talking, or asking good questions, or even not interrupting. It was about really hearing what the other person was saying, and why they were saying it. Being interested, but also curious. Sometimes that means looking for what’s not said, what’s left out, which words are used to mask emotions that are hard to acknowledge. Likewise, good listening is about approaching what has been said as if you’ve never heard it before. Put simply, it’s about paying attention.
Listening is a skill that we could all do with sharpening. After all, for the past year, many of us have been conducting friendships and relationships entirely via social media or text message and email. It’s not like real life. You don’t have to concentrate as much; you can switch off and return to things when you want: it’s an intermittent transmit and, you hope, receive. Real-time listening is different. For a new podcast series, I revisited trusted experts who have been part of my column for the last 13 years, asking them to distil their wisdom in a series of intimate conversations. At the core of all of them? The art of listening.
Becoming an advice columnist changed me within a few weeks. Just after starting the job, my eldest went to primary school, and life suddenly got more complicated. She was “acting up”, as the books would put it: being stroppy. I thought I was listening to her, but I was in a panic – I was tired, I was pregnant, and I thought the correct response was to descend into parent cliche mode, saying things such as, “Don’t you speak to me like that” and, “Who do you think you’re talking to?” These weren’t phrases I normally used, but I’ve since learned that when stressed, we often revert to what we’ve heard before; what we know. Then I remembered what I’d learned that week, talking to a child psychotherapist: listen to what you can’t hear. What might her actions be telling me? When I zoned in on those, I realised that school hadn’t turned her into a brat (my fear) but that she was worried and anxious.
So instead of berating her, I said: “It sounds as if you’ve had a really hard day. Would you like a cuddle?” “Yes, Mummy,” she said, suddenly soft and less furious as she burst into tears. If you don’t listen to children, even when they are being “difficult”, the negative feelings they experience won’t go away. They’ll just stop bringing them to you.
Just a few weeks later, my daughter was telling me about a problem she had. I was five minutes into a prescriptive list of what she should and shouldn’t do, embellished with my own stories to reinforce the points, when I caught her face. She was keen to listen, but I could tell I wasn’t giving her what she needed. I remembered another child psychotherapist telling me that children wanted fewer solutions, and more empathy. Recognising and naming a child’s feelings (in fact, anyone’s) was crucial. “That sounds like a really hard day,” I said, inwardly thinking how insubstantial it sounded, “and I can see how sad it’s made you.” “It was!” she said, beaming. “And I was.” And off she went. Could it really be that simple? Not always, but as a strategy it’s more powerful than you think.
The psychotherapist I’ve spoken to most often for my columns is Chris Mills, a specialist in relationships. I’ve always been impressed with his ability to hear not simply what I’m saying, but what I can’t hear myself (or, in the case of the column, what the reader is saying but hasn’t acknowledged). He taught me that allowing a tiny silence after someone has spoken can enable them to say that bit more. Try it: resist saying something immediately after someone has stopped speaking and just do a gentle, mental, count to 10.
But listening is not about remaining resolutely silent. If it goes on too long, silence can make things awkward. The mistake a lot of people make (myself included) is filling the silence with their own anecdotes, offering platitudes or, worse, cliches (“Everything happens for a reason” should be struck from the annals of mankind. Ditto: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”). Offering up the, “Oh, that happened to me/someone I know, too” stories seems empathic, and they do have their place if they’re short, reinforcing the point your companion was making before you return to the original subject. But doing this without thought is called “shifting”, because you hijack the conversation and turn it on to you. The other person can feel shut down.
Instead, try supporting them, using responses such as, “That sounds tough”, “How did that make you feel?” or, “What a lot you have on”. I used to think these were lightweight, until once, after a high-stress day during which people tried to be sympathetic but actually offered me lists of what I should do, my Italian cousin simply responded to my text with one word: “Capisco” (I understand). I felt seen, heard, understood. Ever since, I’ve never forgotten the power of the short answer.
In well-worn conversations, often between couples, listening can falter, because you think you’ve heard it all before (“Oh, not this again”). Learning to listen as if the information is new is useful for hearing things differently and even, perhaps, making progress. Remember: a person saying the same thing over and over again is probably doing so because they don’t feel heard.
The way information is delivered can also facilitate how well it’s heard. Anger often overshadows detail so it’s less about the message than the mode of delivery. If you make someone feel defensive they will rarely hear what you are saying, because little information is traded and certainly no progress is made when both parties are defending their positions. My very first (personal) therapist, the one I went to when I was barely out of my teens, was Gabrielle Rifkind. She’s now a non-conflict resolution expert. She taught me how to look at things afresh: it is about letting someone see your vulnerable side, and being receptive enough to allow your conversation partner to do the same. Compassion, it seems, is an ideal listening companion.
Listening, as the psychoanalyst Avi Shmueli taught me, is also about looking beyond catch-all, overused masking words such as “fine” and “horrible”. We use these words a lot, but they don’t actually describe feelings. Watch out for them in conversation and, if it’s appropriate, dig a little deeper. What does your partner mean when they say they’ve had a horrible day? What are you not saying when you say, “I’m fine”? What emotions could you replace those words with?
The child and adolescent psychotherapist Rachel Melville-Thomas taught me something else when we recorded a podcast episode called The Wonder Of The Teenage Brain. Teenagers interpret neutral faces as negative, she explained, no matter what’s coming out of your mouth. With that age group, it’s important not only to listen to them in all the ways described above, but to check on what they’ve actually heard. Teenagers also wait until you are busy doing something else to tell you important things – it’s done on purpose, so it’s not too intense. This is why big subjects can come out when you’re not making eye contact – such as when you’re driving, walking, or trying to cook dinner.
“This is all very well,” you may be thinking, “but who is listening to me?” I understand this. Not being listened to is to not be seen; after a while you feel stymied, shrunken. Unfortunately, you can’t make someone else listen to you. But I have learned that someone repeatedly not listening to you can be a form of control. As a child, I used to make adults look at me by physically moving their chins towards me. It’s not socially acceptable to do that as an adult, and, anyway, it’s no guarantee of being heard. If you do feel unheard, a good first step is to sit with the other person and say (always use “I” statements): “I feel we sometimes miss important details from each other. How do you feel about it?”
So has more than a decade of answering your questions and consulting the very best experts made me the mother of all listeners? Nope. But I do really try. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is to listen to myself: that inner voice, my instinct, to listen to what I need and how someone makes me feel. I used to think that if I couldn’t tell someone they weren’t habitually listening to me, it was because I sensed a frailty in them. Mills taught me that, actually, it’s about frailty in the relationship itself. That alone was worth hearing.
The good news is that listening is catching. If you feel listened to, it connects you to that other person, and those bonds grow. They, one hopes, will listen to you in turn. It was only after my dad died that I realised just how much he listened to me, and how valuable that was. He never paid me compliments, but he heard me, which is perhaps the greatest compliment of all.
Conversations with Annalisa Barbieri, Series 1, is available here. Annalisa Barbieri is a Guardian Weekend columnist and the Observer's chocolate correspondent.