There are many ways to help people feel heard. Many of us realize how valuable that capacity is not only for conflict resolution, but in all dimensions of relationship, community, collaboration and politics. Given the emotional intensity we find in conflicts, upsets, and politics, we often need to depend on professional help for people to be able to hear each other. But in this post I offer a few approaches which practically anyone can use with considerable benefit, as long as they follow the procedures outlined.
Feeling heard is a big deal. It is a relief. It is uplifting and empowering. It heals and deepens relationships.
Helping people feel heard is especially important in cases where they don’t want to hear each other or they simply can’t. This happens when they are upset with or strongly disagree with each other. But feeling heard is a joy even in the absence of big upsets and conflicts.
It would be great if we were all able to “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. But we are not all emotional sages, and we have our limits. So it can really help to have agreed-on ways to help us both hear and understand AND be heard and understood. This uplifts everyone involved without having to be saints to start with.
Below are two handy processes for helping people hear each other – either to clear the air or for the pure human joy and warmth of it. They have in common that they are very easy to use. Of course, the processes only work if they are used correctly. The participants have to agree to follow the protocols or to engage a facilitator or mediator to help them do it. Then they can work their magic….
I WANT YOU TO KNOW
Very often when we’re in conflict, we don’t actually know what the other person is thinking and feeling, the stories they’re telling themselves (about us, themselves, whatever happened, and so on), or the things they’re wanting or needing. All we really know is how we see them behaving. Beyond that, we are caught up in our own thoughts and feelings and desires and the stories we’re telling ourselves about who they are and what’s motivating them. And, sadly, the same is true for them.
“I want you to know” is a very simple form of exchange that creates a “time out” in which both parties have a chance to clarify all these unknowns that are dancing inside them and between them.
I was introduced to this practice by my late partner Karen Mercer (1944-2010). We used it quite a few times to help us navigate our own relationship difficulties.
HOW TO DO IT: The protocol is quite simple. Each person takes 5 minutes to tell the other something they want them to know, alway starting with the words “I want you to know…” Each statement is only one or two (or a very few) sentences long. The other person acknowledges hearing the statement with a simple “OK”, “thank you”, or other neutral or appreciative acknowledgement, but nothing more.
“I want you to know that I hate it when we argue like this.”
“I want you to know that when I have strong feelings, I wish to hell you would just shut the fuck up until I finish talking!”
“I want you to know that when all this started, I had a really bad headache and was feeling down and frustrated from shit that happened at work today.”
“Thanks for telling me that.”
This goes on for five minutes, and then the two people switch roles. The cycle repeats until an agreed-upon time is up or until both parties feel better about the conflict and each other. The listener can take quick notes about what the speaker has said or about things that come up for them to say during their turn. They can ask for a (short!) pause in the exchange to make such notes. If the five minute limit is felt by both parties to be too long or too short, they can agree on a different time period.
If the standard five minute time limit is used by two people with no pauses, the pair can cover six rounds in one hour. Often there is a major resolution after just a few rounds – a meaningful realization about what was going on for each of them and/or an easing of conflicted feelings, thanks to both feeling more heard and understood. Usually each round shifts how the parties think and feel, at least a bit.
Either party can end their turn before 5 minutes (or end their side of the process) by saying “I’m done” or “I’m done for now”. On the other hand, if something comes up after they thought they were done, they can say “I have more I want you to know” and claim the next turn.
Obviously, the more seriously the parties take themselves, each other, and the process – and the more thoughtfully and compassionately they acknowledge each other – the more powerful the process can be. But even done relatively shallowly or briefly, this process can have a positive impact.
However, users should realize that the disciplines of starting with “I want you to know”, doing clean (not charged) acknowledgements, and maintaining the ritual’s time limits and communication constraints help keep the interaction from turning into a harangue or firefight. The process provides “a container” for intense declarations and feelings, creating a space – as big or small as the parties can create – for both of them to actually hear each other. At the very least, it is an opportunity to clear the air.
You can also use this process to fairly and deeply share thoughts and feelings when there’s no conflict, just to enrich the relationship. And you can adapt it to include more than two people. You can also add reflective listening to the acknowledgements, although then it becomes more like our next process, Empathy Circles.
Empathy Circles have been innovated by Edwin Rutsch of Culture of Empathy. They offer a simple way to bring diverse people into connection with each other by sharing active listening and feeling well heard. I learned about the process through my colleague Rosa Zubizaretta who recognized their kinship with the active listening practice used in Dynamic Facilitation. Inspired by that, she has co-created the “Communication Practices that Open Minds and Hearts” process (OMAH) which combines Empathy Circles with a simplified form of Dynamic Facilitation (which in its full form requires a trained facilitator). Rosa provides a page of resources on Empathy Circles and OMAH, noting their shared roots with Dynamic Facilitation in the groundbreaking work of psychologist Carl Rogers. (Nonviolent Communication also uses its own special versions of empathy and reflective listening. NVC is easier to learn and do than Dynamic Facilitation, but still requires some experience to be effective. I focus on Empathy Circles here because they deliver considerable rewards despite their profound DIY simplicity.)
HOW TO DO IT: Start with a few minutes for everyone involved to reflect on their shared topic or question or whatever is “up for them” individually. They can write notes about what they might like to share. Then have participants sit in circles of 3-5 people. In each circle the first speaker asks another circle member to be their listener. If that person agrees, the pair spend 5 minutes during which the speaker talks and the listener occasionally reflects back what they’re hearing, seeking to help the speaker feel really heard. Sometimes the listener may be at the edge of forgetting what the speaker is saying and so they’ll ask the speaker to stop so they can reflect back what they’ve heard so far, at which point the speaker can continue. The listener can also take notes to remind themselves what the speaker says, so they can reflect it shortly. When the speaker feels thoroughly heard or the pair’s 5 minutes are up, the listener becomes the next speaker and asks someone else in the group to listen to them and reflect. This goes on with each person getting one or more turns as both speaker and listener.
Note that, while reflective listening can be done in dyads (the same two people reversing roles for each other), being heard by someone for whom we will not have the task of listening can free us up to talk, while listening to someone to whom we are not going to be speaking helps us not be distracted by thinking of things we may want to say. Oddly, doing this in a small groups makes the process emotionally easier. And as a bonus, other group members get to witness heartful speaking and listening without having to engage with the parties involved, which can be a moving experience in itself.
This exercise is usually a very enjoyable and rich experience for all involved. Having someone really listening to us – and really wanting to understand us and help us feel heard – is so rare in our culture that some Empathy Circle participants break down in tears of appreciation and relief. Edwin and his team have used this practice in their Empathy Tent during major street demonstrations with counter-demonstrations, even getting opposite-side demonstrators to listen to each other and reflect back what they’ve heard. These generate some powerful moments of realization.
For videos of Empathy Circles, see here.
For a short illustrated handout of the process, see here.
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