After class this week, a student stayed behind to talk to me. He asked me a question that took me aback. “Mrs. Gina, how do you keep it all together?” I’m sure I gave him a surprised look because he kept talking. “I’ve had you for multiple classes now and known you for about 2 years. You are the smiliest person I know. No matter what is going on, you come into class and act as if everything is great.”
I am currently teaching face to face upper level entrepreneurship classes at a major university. Things are different in the age of COVID-19. Everyone is wearing a mask, all students are placed at least 6’ apart, all rows are separated with plexiglass and I have a 6×6’ red tape square surrounding the area I stand to teach that is the border for how close students can get to me. I feel 100% safe in the classroom, but it is different.
My heart broke a bit when the student asked me how I keep it together because I knew this meant he was having a hard time doing it. I could tell by the tone of his voice and his eyes (which is all I can see) that he was sad. The college experience that he and his classmates had expected has been indefinitely interrupted. Their ability to go to class, chat with their peers in the hall, and have coffee or lunch together is completely different now. For incoming freshman, it is the only true college experience they have so they don’t know anything different. But for the upperclassman that have had the true college experience, it makes sense that right now they are sad.
As a coach, parent, teacher, and friend I know the most important thing I can do for anyone I have a relationship with is to listen to them. Not just hear them, but really listen to them. I call it “listening between the lines”. Everyone wants and needs to be heard. We want to be heard so that we believe the person we are talking to understands how we feel. This means that to listen between the lines, I must also practice empathy. I must take the time to think and to put myself into the other person’s shoes so that I can try to understand what they are feeling. That is easier said than done. It means I must put my personal thoughts and feelings aside for a few minutes. If I project my thoughts and feelings onto the other person I have not truly listened to them.
How many times have you tuned a person out because you do not agree with what they are saying or feeling? How many times have you assumed another person is less intelligent than you, does not care as much as you, or worse is acting with malice because you don’t agree with their words or actions? I see this playing out all around me now more than ever. I see it in discussions concerning race, sexual orientation, immigration, and covid. It has led to more division in our country than I can remember seeing in my lifetime. Division that is leading to anger and to sadness and ultimately life or death circumstances.
The lack of true listening has a downward spiral effect. If a person is trying to express a thought or feeling, either good or bad, but does not feel heard or understood, the likelihood that this person will be willing to listen to anyone else is incredibly low. The result looks like a conversation between 2 people with an invisible wall between them. Everything each says hits the invisible wall and bounces to the ground without the other person hearing a word. Each person gets louder and starts to yell, but the words bounce off the invisible wall and hit the ground. Each person gets emotional and lashes out, but the words hit the invisible wall and bounce to the ground. Ultimately, the two people walk away from the conversation with no resolution and terrible feelings about the person that didn’t hear them without realizing the invisible wall existed. More division.
The good news is that listening between the lines and having empathy are learned skills. Anyone can do it, but it takes a willingness to want to bridge gaps, time, and practice to be good at it. I have outlined 7 easy steps to help you get started with listening between the lines.
1. Be present and listen to understand, not to respond. Give the person speaking your undivided attention. Put your phone away. Make eye contact. Listen to develop questions to learn more, not to respond or have the right answer.
2. Do not interrupt. For goodness sake, let the other person speak. It is very disrespectful to interrupt people. This signals that you are more interested in what you have to say than what they have to say. Remember, if you want someone to listen to you, you must be willing to listen too.
3. Do not respond with “I” or “me” statements. How annoying is it when you tell a person something, they do not acknowledge anything you said but instead, respond with a story about themselves? It is terrible! This is another huge signal that you do not care about what the other person had to say and that you are more interested in yourself. The best responses involve acknowledging that you heard what was said and can see why the person is experiencing their thoughts and feelings. Ask questions to get the person to tell you more.
4. Remind yourself that you do not know everything, and you might not be right. We all can agree that no one knows everything. We all have a lot to learn in life regardless of our age. It starts with a desire to learn rather than a desire to be right. Put your ego aside. The most successful people respond with “tell me more” and truly listen to learn.
5. Realize that you do not have to agree with someone to listen to them and put yourself in their shoes to understand them. This is a big realization for most people. We can intellectually understand why a person feels a particular way without agreeing with the reasons that cause the feelings. Specifically, I do not agree with violent response to #blacklivesmatter but I do understand why some black people feel angry enough to behave that way. They have built up frustration and anger from years of not feeling heard. We do not have to condone it to understand it. Listening with a pragmatic ear takes practice. It takes self-control to put our values aside to try to understand the values of other people. This skill is a gamechanger. It is like a Jedi Mind Trick.
6. Never give unsolicited advice. Another hard one! For some reason, we feel as if we need to fix things when someone decides to talk to us or confide in us. That is rarely true. Most times, we just want someone to listen so that we can either vent or get our thoughts out into the open to sort them out. The next time someone vents to you, rather than trying to give unsolicited advice try asking something along the lines of “what steps have you taken?” This opens the door for the person to either tell you it is solved or to ask you for help.
7. DO NOT TELL PEOPLE TO TOUGH IT OUT, GET OVER IT, OR THINGS COULD BE WORSE! Yes, I yelled this at you. It is that important. We’ve all done it. We are trying to be helpful and shift the energy to something more positive. However, what we have done is to tell the person that their feelings do not matter. All feelings are ok and justified. We need to feel all of them to be better able to process them and move on. Pushing feelings aside or stifling them is never successful long term.
Listening between the lines is not impossible and is not always easy, but it is always helpful. We must facilitate conversations and listen to instigate the change we all want to see. Learning to truly listen with empathy is the first step to closing the divides we see in the world. It is also the first step for leaders needing to get followers to work towards a common goal. Listening is the key for developing relationships and getting desired results. Too many times individuals in leadership positions do not take the time to listen to followers while developing a plan, only to have the plan fail. Listening is my key to holding it all together.
After my student asked me how I held it all together, I took a deep breath to think and to process what I was hearing between the lines. He needed an answer that he could use, not an answer that worked for me. He needed to know someone cared about him and had his back. He needed to know that his feelings of sadness were ok and were normal. That is the type of answer I gave him. He was still sad when he left class, but now he knows someone heard him and cares.
I do not have it all together, not even close. I am not the smiliest person on the inside. I am sad, scared, and frustrated just like everyone else. However, I have taken the time to listen to my students and to hear what they need. I show up for them in the way they need me, not the way I want things to be. It gives them a sense of calm and normalcy and the results I get from my students are outstanding. I am proud of them and love my college kiddos a ton. We will get through all of this together.
If you want to learn more about listening between the lines, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you.