When I was a young mom, I thought I knew how to listen with a compassionate heart. I had become an expert at listening to what my little ones were trying to say. Watching clues like their body language, the context of an activity, and my intuition all helped me decipher their words. But as they grew older I slowly lost that sixth sense and felt inept at understanding what they’re trying to communicate to me.
I’ve had many a conversation end in frustration because one of us wasn’t getting what the other was trying to say. There is a big difference between listening and hearing what is actually being said. It’s the kind of conversation where she thinks she’s telling you what she wants to say, but you’re hearing something completely different, and somewhere in the middle lies the real meaning.
Sound confusing? It’s not. Real listening is one valuable tool to have in your arsenal. It’s more than listening with your ear, reading body language, or actively participating in the dialogue. Focused and compassionate listening is about the meaning we give our conversations. It involves stepping out of our mind and into the shoes of the person with whom we’re communicating. This kind of listening breaks down into understanding the four layers of communication.
4 Layers of Communication
What they actually say.
What they intended to say.
What you’re making it mean.
What you’re thinking
Here’s an example of how these layers work.
One day my daughter came home from school upset because her best friend said: “I hate you.” It was a little alarming at first because it was so out of character for this friend. Calmly we sat down together to dissect the conversation.
They had been playing tetherball during recess. My daughter kept hitting the ball out of her friends reach. In frustration, her friend said, “I hate you.” She may have meant “I hate how you keep hitting the ball out of my reach” or “I hate how I’m losing this game.” Either would have made more sense. Then we examined the meaning my daughter was giving the statement. “If she hates me I don’t have a best friend anymore.” This meaning led to thoughts like: “I hate her too; she’s a jerk, I feel sad; I’m not a good friend; I must be a bad person.”
When we listen we automatically give meaning to what is said, rather than what was intended. My daughter heard “I hate you” and her mind started looking for reasons why she wasn’t likable. Our first inclination is to become defensive and interpret the statement in a seemingly protective way.
Listen with a Compassionate Heart
Rather than trusting our brain’s automatic response; first, ask why they might be saying this and then go to their mind for the answer. What thoughts and feelings might they have to cause them to say or respond this way?
When we listen with a compassionate heart, we respond by looking outward instead of inward. We’re focused on understanding what the other person might be feeling, rather than how their words make us want to respond.
Questions to Ask
Be careful to look for the answers to these questions in their brain, not yours. This will give you a different perspective and open your heart to have more compassion when you listen.
- Why is this person saying this?
- What is the thought or feeling behind his action?
- What is going on in his mind?
- Ask him, Why are you saying that? Listen for the intention behind his words.
It’s a beautiful thing to be able to understand people as we listen with our whole heart. Active listening skills are a start when it comes to gaining clarity in a conversation, but when we listen with a compassionate heart we understanding the four layers of communication.
When someone’s speaking to you, there is what they’re thinking, what they’re saying, what you’re hearing, and what your thinking about what you hear. When you listen with your heart ask yourself: “What is the thought behind what they’re saying?” Most importantly look for the answer in their brain — not yours. If you don’t feel the compassion be sure to take the question to the next level. “But why are they having that thought.” Listening with compassion is a game changer. It will help you and it will help your family.